For the last 52 of its 100 years, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (TMC) has given annual performances of the Messiah that are gloriously - and unabashedly - huge. Last month, George Frederick Handel's renowned Hallelujah Chorus poured forth from 180 exquisitely tuned throats and a full symphony orchestra during five near-capacity performances in Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall. Supporters of the increasingly influential period-performance movement, which strives to present music in a historically correct manner, are quick to point out that a mere 16 singers and a tiny instrumental ensemble took part in the Messiah's 1742 Dublin première - and that Handel had only a few additional musicians at his disposal for subsequent London performances. But TMC conductor Elmer Iseler suspects that Handel would have loved to hear his masterpiece sung by a vast and splendid choir. "They say that when he finished composing the Hallelujah Chorus, he thought he saw the heavens open and heard multitudes singing praise to God," Iseler says. "To me that sounds like a lot of singers."
On Jan. 15, exactly 100 years after its first concert, the TMC will celebrate its centenary with a Roy Thomson Hall performance of another mighty, much-loved work, Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem. The anniversary is the latest milestone in the history of a group that made a triumphant debut at New York City's Carnegie Hall back in 1907. Long respected for its beauty of tone and trueness of pitch, the choir has performed an extensive range of classics and contemporary works with such noted Canadian soloists as Lois Marshall, Maureen Forrester and Jon Vickers. In 1986, the TMC took part in a Messiah recording that featured U.S. superstar Kathleen Battle. More recently, the choir turned up on the Oscar-winning sound track of the 1993 film Schindler's List. John Williams, who composed the score, had conducted the TMC in a pops concert a decade earlier.
The choir's members range in age from twentysomething to seventysomething. And for most of them, belonging to the group is purely a labor of love - one that requires a minimum of 2½hours of rehearsal weekly. The 20-voice Elmer Iseler Singers form the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir's paid professional choir; the group's other 160 members are unpaid. While many of them earn a living teaching music or conducting church choirs, others have completely different lives by day, in banking, computers and even, in one case, aromatherapy. All choir members, even veterans, must audition at the start of each season. One newcomer who made the cut in the fall and happily paid the $55 annual membership fee was baritone Louis Moreau, a glass-company executive who had just been transferred to Toronto from Quebec City. "The calibre of this choir is tremendous," the 34-year-old said during break time at a recent TMC rehearsal. "In Quebec, I sang with choirs that paid me to sing. I pay to sing with this choir."
Membership dues were $2 for gentlemen and $1 for ladies when Baptist organist and choirmaster Augustus Stephen Vogt founded the TMC in 1894. At the time, choirs were often named for famous choral composers, and German artist Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was a favorite of the founder. By the 1920s, the choir was performing regularly with the Philadelphia Orchestra and its conductor Leopold Stokowski. Sir Ernest MacMillan, the revered conductor of the Toronto Symphony, moonlighted as the leader of the TMC from 1942 to 1957. Iseler, a Lutheran minister's son from Port Colborne, Ont., sang tenor with the choir under MacMillan and served - briefly - as his assistant director. MacMillan thought the young man was too harsh with the singers and failed to renew his contract.
But in 1964, Iseler was named conductor of the TMC, and the choir's 1994-1995 centenary is also his 30th as its leader. When he took over, Iseler had already founded the Festival Singers of Canada, which became the choir's first professional core. The Festival Singers disbanded in 1979, and in the same year he founded the Elmer Iseler Singers. Iseler, now 68, tours and records extensively with his professional group. The Elmer Iseler Singers present more than 80 of their own concerts annually and appear with the TMC for approximately 25 additional concerts each season.
Tact may not have been Iseler's strong suit in the MacMillan era, but he has since mastered the art of being exacting in an avuncular way. In rehearsals, he frequently makes such comments as: "One voice - I won't say where it's coming from - is a little behind the beat." Says alto Debbie Fleming, a 42-year-old arranger and studio session musician who has been with the TMC for 22 seasons: "He doesn't accept anything second-rate from us. And the choir sings for him because we really adore him."
Two years ago, when the cash-strapped Canada Council stopped funding amateur choirs, the TMC lost its grant. Since then, the choir has redoubled its fund-raising efforts with such tactics as hiring out TMC quartets to sing love songs on Valentine's Day. This month, the choir will record a radio jingle for itself that Fleming wrote. The music, she says, is "sort of a cross between rap and Gregorian chant." It includes the words: "Whenever I want to lift my spirits higher,/I'm inspired by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir." Choral music, whether religious or secular, can indeed have a profound effect on people. And for a century, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir has demonstrated the exhilarating power of human voices raised in song.
Maclean's January 16, 1995