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31 December 2020

Holiday Concerts in Review: 6 shows that went on despite the pandemic

by Henrik Eger (Phindie.com)

MENDELSSOHN CHORUS: A new name, a new artistic director, and A Slice of Pie

Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia, one of the most popular choruses with high standards, formerly known as the “Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia is a music institution in Philadelphia, [. . .] founded in 1874 by William Wallace Gilchrist, a major figure in the 19th-century music of Philadelphia. The chorus is currently under the direction of Dominick DiOrio (2020- ). It was previously directed by Paul Rardin from 2015-2020, chair of the department of choral conducting at Temple University. Prior to Rardin’s appointment, the chorus was led by Alan Harler from 1988–2015. (Wikipedia)

Melissa Dunphy is one of Australia’s greatest gifts for Philadelphia. She is composer of the Mendelssohn Chorus’s winter concert A Slice of Pie: Music by Melissa Dunphy, Poetry by Feminista Jones. Her Gonzales Cantata, the musical equivalent to The Investigation by Peter Weiss, based on the transcripts of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. Dunphy took the entire transcript of the Gonzales hearings and turned them into an equally eye-opening trial on stage. 

She used strong Baroque elements for her music in the Gonzales Cantata, wrote many other pieces, quite a few in a more academic, abstract style, but for this Christmas concert, she used a mixture of American jazz and dream choirs, sung magnificently by the newly named Mendelssohn Chorus. My fear that I would hear atonal music that I usually only can stomach when performed by modern ballet dancers dissipated within seconds: This music made me want not only to eat more pies, but more importantly listen to sounds that made me feel at home, but also lyrics that made me think. 

Adding to the down-to-earthiness of this musical gem, this witty recording of her Slice of Pie, actually includes Dunphy herself preparing a pie, and her mother proudly taking it out of the oven, followed by other people who are eating various forms of baked goods. 

Given that way too many older folks have died of Covid-19 infections, I was moved when I saw an elderly couple eating a homemade pie, and clearly relishing the joint experience. I appreciated the fact that Dunphy and her lyricists, together with the chorus, the musicians, and the videographers, managed to make me think without being confronted by an angry manifesto. Rather, Dunphy manages to let us experience the joy of the holidays, but also gifts us with the awareness of what can happen to large numbers of people if we allow ignorance, greed, and exploitation to rule a country.

It was the first time that I saw the brilliant new conductor, Dominick DiOrio, wearing a festive red jacket, conducting over 70 singers, and the three musicians—Eric Schweingruber on the trumpet, Nathan Pence on bass, and Travis Goffredo on drums—leading to one of the most joyful holiday choral experiences.