Mendelssohn Chorus opens 150th season with a prayer for peace

For its 150th season, the classical choral ensemble will perform a program of anti-war, anti-violence music.

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Dominick Diorio conducts the Mendelssohn Choir at a rehearsal.

Dominick Diorio, conductor and artistic director of the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia, rehearses for the opening of its 150th season. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

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Before conductor Dominick Diorio began preparing the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia for the start of the landmark 150th season, he paused in front of the 119 singers assembled on stage for a rehearsal at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square, for a few somber words.

“I want to take a moment to acknowledge the horrendous things that are happening in Israel and Gaza,” Diorio told the singers, adding that a colleague of his at Indiana University Jacob’s School of Music had been trapped in Tel Aviv during the recent attack by Hamas.

“Our program has relevance beyond our original intention,” he said.

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The season’s opening concert, “We Reply to Violence,” will feature music written in opposition to war and violence. Several months ago, with the war in Ukraine on his mind, Diorio had programmed Joseph Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” and Joel Thompson’s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.”

He also included his own piece, “We Reply,” based on Jewish prayers for peace found in the Torah. He could not have anticipated a war would erupt in Israel and Gaza just days before the performance.

Dominick Diorio stands in the Church of Holy Trinity
Dominick Diorio, conductor and artistic director of the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia, rehearses for the opening of its 150th season at the Church of Holy Trinity, in Rittenhouse Square.. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Started in 1874, the Mendelssohn Chorus is one of the oldest performing ensembles in the city, behind the private singing group the Orpheus Club (1872) and the Penn Glee Club (1862). It once presented the Philadelphia Orchestra when that ensemble was still in its infancy.

“The Mendelssohn chorus has enjoyed a close performing relationship with The Philadelphia Orchestra, beginning with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in 1904,” said the Philadelphia Orchestra in a statement.

The Mendelssohn Chorus helped the orchestra present the 1927 world premiere of Rachmaninoff’s “Three Russian Songs,” and the American premieres of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” (1916) and Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” (1932).

The chorus sings with the orchestra every holiday season for the Glorious Sounds of Christmas concerts, “a tradition that is deeply cherished by both ensembles,” said the orchestra.

As its 14th artistic director, Diorio feels the both weight of that history and the urgency to stay relevant. He signed on to be the director in March 2020 just as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down performances all over the country. He said much of the pandemic was spent developing a strategic mission for the future of the chorus.

“We imagine our mission to foster artistry, beauty, and belonging,” Diorio said. “We’re not just about performing great choral music. We do that, too. We’re all about making sure the music we present says something really resonant with the issues of our time.”

Dominick Diorio poses for a photo. Behind him are members of the Mendelssohn Choir
Dominick Diorio is conductor and artistic director of the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia rehearsing for the opening of its 150th season at the Church of Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square. (Pter Crimmins/WHYY)

Diorio said the choir, as a musical format, is uniquely capable of embodying the ideals of society.

“We come together and we do something together in a unified way,” he said. “We share some of our values and do it in a way that approaches sublimity, that approaches beauty, that approaches things that are not possible by ourselves. That is a model for governance.”

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On the program this weekend is “We Reply,” written by Diorio in 2018 for the Master Chorale of South Florida, on the event of the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein.

The work was inspired by something Bernstein wrote in 1963, just after President Kennedy was assassinated: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

But Diorio could not secure rights to that text. The Master Chorale of South Florida, Brett Karlin, suggested he dip into the Torah, and use phrases from the Jewish Shema and Hashkiveinu prayers, for protection and peace.

Hear us, God
Hear our strife
Hear our plea

Diorio, who is not Jewish (“I consider myself lapsed Catholic, or agnostic, perhaps atheist adjacent — I don’t know how you want to qualify it”), said “God” in his piece is meant to represent the divinity within humanity.

“When I say ‘Hear us, God,’ I’m saying, ‘Hear us, you, out there, listening to this: Do you understand your role in not perpetuating violence and not perpetuating hatred and not perpetuating racism,’” he said. “‘How will you respond?’”

The program also includes Thompson’s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” a piece written in 2015 based on the final known words of seven Black males killed by law enforcement or — in the case of Trayvon Martin — a member of a neighborhood watch group: Kenneth Chamberlain (“Why do you have your guns out?”), Trayvon Martin (“What are you following me for?”), Amadou Diallo (“Mom, I’m going to college.”), Michael Brown (“I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.”), Oscar Grant (“You shot me! You shot me!”), John Crawford (“It’s not real.”), and Eric Garner (“I can’t breathe.”).

The piece is modeled on another Haydn piece, the oratorio “Seven Last Words of Christ,” which sets the last words of a crucified Jesus to music.

“We point out the humanity within divinity, and the divinity within humanity: These were people who died.” Diorio said. “That is about brutality. That is about what we can do to end it.”

Dominick Diorio conducts the choir
Dominick Diorio, conductor and artistic director of the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia, rehearses for the opening of its 150th season. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

The 150th anniversary season is bookended by addressing fundamental challenges to life on earth: It starts with war, and ends with climate change. The chorus has commissioned Philadelphia composer Melissa Dunphy to write a new work to address climate change, which will be premiered in May 2024.

In the middle are somewhat lighter fare: the annual holiday Feast of Carols concerts in December, and in February a program oriented around Valentines Day, “Love, Loss, Longing.”

The We Reply to Violence program will be performed just once, Saturday, October 14 at 4 p.m. at Philadelphia’s Church of the Holy Trinity, 1904 Walnut Street.

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