No costume necessary

Tonight I witnessed the first of Tafelmusik’s annual presentations of Händel’s Messiah at Koerner Hall, being presented nightly until the 22nd, followed by the annual singalong Messiah on the afternoon of the 23rd at Massey Hall.

Who is that be-wigged maestro?

The four at Koerner Hall are led by Ivars Taurins, while the singalong is led by the composer himself.  Okay okay, so it’s actually Taurins, channelling Georg Frederick Händel.  Having seen the video of the singalong broadcast on Bravo (last year), I suspect that this exercise has been very good for Taurins.  I recall that Anton Kuerti once said that in playing Beethoven one must to some extent become Beethoven.  Romantic identification?  Surely.

But what I saw tonight from Taurins has me believing that Taurins has gone very deeply into character, gaining a profound understanding of who the composer is, and more importantly, what he’s really written.

He needs no costume. At times that felt like the genuine article up there, conducting his own masterpiece.

Best moment?  Again this is a person view, seen through tears that were dripping off my beard.

One of my favourite numbers is the chorus “Lift Up Your Heads”.  It’s a curious thing, a dialogue between segments of the chorus as if to explain to us in a Socratic fashion, just what we’re experiencing with God and belief.  Taken from Psalm 24, Händel takes these few words:

Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors;
and the King of Glory shall come in.
Who is the King of Glory?
The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in.
Who is the King of Glory?
The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.

Just looking at these meagre few lines,… I’m tearing up.  Here’s the good thing about a blog.  If I were in class or speaking to friends my voice would be breaking and I am sure I would elicit at least some laughter (deservedly).

I watched Taurins get a couple of inches taller conducting this.  He gave us two very distinct voices, with the chirpy women singing the first part, the questioning males, inquiring (“who is the King of Glory”?), the women answering, and so on.  It went by at a ferocious pace, which gives it tension that’s usually missing in older – style recordings.  I was ambushed by Paul McCreesh’s recording, where the dialogue is very clear indeed.  But I daresay it’s even clearer in the live performance I saw, where – I swear—Taurins seemed to be inviting his choristers to distinguish one section from the next, by singing with a different deportment (one side very clipped, the other more relaxed, for example).

Have a listen ….(!)…although i think Taurins & the Choir are even more vivid live & in person.

It needs to be said that Taurins is a choral conductor leading an orchestra.  This is a good thing even if in the (at least formerly) macho world of orchestral music, these kind of gestures or a bar-for-nothing isn’t usually done.

So what..!

Taurins seemed to treat the orchestra like another part of his chorus, with voices that just don’t happen to have any text but are still every bit as articulate & clear as what you find from the singers.  Instead of merely beating bars –which almost every conductor does—Taurins conducts phrases, sometimes several bars in one sweeping gesture, and then with an answering gesture if necessary.  If a series of words are being sung, Taurins marvellously punches out the big word in a sentence that he wants emphasized.  And surprise surprise, Tafelmusik Chamber Choir deliver exactly what he asks.

There were even places where he stood stock still, as if admiring the Christmas tree: looking adoringly at his choir, as they delivered ravishing music, adoring him right back.  The smiles I saw all over the place were genuine, unfeigned admiration.  I suppose this at least is part of the long-term experience of playing Maestro Händel: that the choir see his portrayal, and are in various ways seduced.  But of course that probably starts in rehearsal, and is a long-term and loving relationship.

I have never seen such committed conducting.  For the entire length of this large work, Taurins was dancing about the stage, not letting up for “Worthy Is the Lamb” or the closing “Amen”.

When the soloists were required to come to the fore, it was a different kind of conducting, perhaps because Taurins did not want to take any focus from his quartet:

  • Soprano Joanne Lunn
  • Mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy
  • Tenor Aaron Sheehan
  • Bass-baritone Douglas Williams

I am unsure about the dramaturgy of the different approaches taken by this quartet, that each imply a different sort of drama: although I know that each had great moments.   I am still trying to wrap my head around the contradictions of baroque performance, which is at times a medium for display and showing off skill, at other times about deep moods & sensitivity to emotion.  Couple that with Messiah, a work that is a drama of the spirit, and one may be perplexed at some of the choices. Should one emphasize the drama, or let the text & music speak for the inner passions of the situations?  I suppose it depends on the section.

Lunn was unquestionably the most dramatic.  Her best moment I felt was in stepping forward for the recitative “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart”. What an interesting idea: that “thy” is addressed at the chorus who have indeed been rebuking Jesus.  And she seemed so deeply engaged, I was jolted in a new way by this passage, finding a whole new way of seeing it.

Of the four, I would say that Lunn’s voice is perhaps the most true to historically informed performance of Händel, often being very clear & direct, with less vibrato than any of her colleagues onstage.  Lunn’s delivery of the Christmas lines concerning the shepherds was for me the highlight of Part One, delivered with unshakeable conviction and a lovely innocence.

My one negative is perhaps me being a stickler.  Lunn was a most enthusiastic and committed soloist, often nodding her head with her lines.  This was powerful in “If God be for us, who can be against us, ” whereas the nods undermine “I know that my redeemer liveth”.   While this may be excellent acting, the problem at this moment is that an affirmation of faith should not be dramatic.  It’s an enthusiastic attempt to signify belief, but it’s not good to remind us that this is an attempt to persuade. This affirmation of faith needs to be as calm and assured as ownership or breathing itself.

McHardy faced down a tough challenge, in arguably the most difficult single number in the entire work, namely “He was despised”.  McHardy underplayed, in comparison to what Lunn was doing, a sincere calm passion in the slow “he was despised” section, a more powerful, angry delivery in the “he gave his back to the smiters” section.

The men sang beautifully, but without the conviction I saw from the women.  I am sure all four care, so forgive me if this sounds critical; but you can’t miss when the two women are singing along with the “Hallelujah chorus” (they looked so sweet, too…absorbed in the music) while the men are staring elsewhere.  It’s a little thing, but perhaps something to consider: that all four be working from the same style-sheet.  That’s one thing I had in mind when I spoke of dramaturgy, but there’s more.

For instance –to invoke a line that was satisfactory but not brilliant—I will never be content with the usual delivery of “unto which of the angels said He at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee?” …now that I have heard what Michael Schade does with this line.  No I did not see the TSO Messiah (that includes Schade), but I do have him on the Harnoncourt recording.  Schade delivers the first part as recitative, then snaps into a voice that is truly God-like in its ostentation and loving delivery.  How can I listen to this line as mere connective tissue after hearing Schade channel God?

And it was fun watching the orchestra play the “Pifa” (a pastoral symphony introducing the scene of the shepherds with their flocks), watching Allyson McHardy, after she admitted in her interview that this was the processional at her wedding.  I don’t think I’ll ever listen to that music quite the same way again.

Yes the soloists –and several instrumentalists – were stars.  But as far as I am concerned Taurins is the real star.  I’m very impressed, and now am eager to see him on the new DVD of the Messiah that’s been released recently.

Considering that the run is sold out, that’s probably your best bet.

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2 Responses to No costume necessary

  1. Jim says:

    Finally to hear from another person who cannot listen to a performance of Messiah, or recount it to another, without tearing up. And here I thought I was the only one. I too was of the privileged ones to procure tickets to this event before they were sold out. We were at the first performance on the 19th, and many of the points you have listed above, are the same ones that I noted and loved as well. As I wasn’t able to see Joanne’s supposed head bobbing, I only heard her glorious voice and dramatic pathos in the arias “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” and “If God Be For Us, Who Can Be Against Us”. And while her voice soared into those glorious high notes, held for what seemed an eternity, my heart soared with her and I felt myself rising off my seat. I too, was inspired by her unexpected and ringing rebuke of the choir, in her performance of “Thy Rebuke Has Broken His Heart”. Her sense of dramatic appeal fascinates me. She is not merely singing words, she is telling a story, and a deeply important and moving story of a Man that came to set this world free from its bondage. As I am hardly a hardened concert goer, I was left in a daze of delight when the last chorus of Amens came to an end… I had no idea that the best was yet to come. As I was standing in the lobby getting ready to leave, this glorious woman descended the stairs and I was given the chance to thank her for the fabulous job she had done, and how she had moved my heart… Truly, it was the best Christmas Gift I could have asked for.

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