An Electric Messiah comes to Messiahville


Carla Huhtanen

We may as well be living in Messiahville. There are so many performances of this work in Toronto, it’s amazing that they don’t play excerpts on the organ at hockey games (but then again, there’s been so little cause for celebration maybe that’s the problem).  Is it because in a city full of churches and dwindling congregations, that there are loads of people whose slender connection to Christianity is through Charlton Heston movies and Handel?  All I know is that there are so many year after year that there’s  an implicit demand to change it up.

  • Tafelmusik offer their historically informed version next week at Koerner Hall, as well as their singalong performance led by Herr Handel, aka Ivars Taurins.
  • In 2010 the Toronto Symphony turned to Sir Andrew Davis, Conductor Laureate, for a new orchestration of the work, a version that’s to be offered again next week at Roy Thomson Hall
  • In 2013 Against The Grain (aka “AtG”) offered a version in a rock venue that was choreographed by Jennifer Nichols, and will be offered again next week at Harbourfront Centre Theatre.

So in other words next week there will be three different approaches front and centre in Toronto, to say nothing of performances in local churches.

SlowPitch Sound, resident DJ at the Drake Hotel Underground

SlowPitch Sound, Ear Candy resident DJ

Tonight I saw what might be understood as an adaptation of Messiah from Soundstreams, presented as part of their “Ear Candy” series.  They used the Drake Hotel Underground for “Electric Messiah” to make the furthest departure yet from the original, at least on the local scene.   I couldn’t help seeing it as part of the Toronto ecology, likely influenced by what’s come before.

Before speaking of other Messiahs, I would simply like to contextualize it with the other piece I kept thinking of tonight, namely Tapestry’s Tap EX: Metallurgy, when a modern opera company had invited a rock band to create something new.  I had been somewhat disappointed that when handed the opportunity, members of a punk band opted for a very tame & calm sound.   Tonight, playing an adaptation of Handel, we experienced something far edgier, precisely because it was an adaptation, a kind of crossover performance incorporating some intriguing parts into a new sort of hybrid combining the old (Messiah) and new (synth, DJ, electronic… you name it!).  When crossover works you get the wisdom from the old form informing the new one.  And so we had a magical moment of a DJ playing with a vinyl chunk of Handel, sampled and teased into a totally new shape.  We had a vocalist singing “Comfort Ye” in a new language even while staying within hailing distance of the original.

Linda Hutcheon’s Theory of Adaptation

Handel served as a kind of backbone as so often happens in good adaptations.  To paraphrase Linda Hutcheon, an adaptation can work like a palimpsest (a metaphor she uses), where we see meaning through several layers.  I could experience some of the original Handel even as the new layers were painted over the old piece, that still showed through.  The two (old and new) interact delightfully.

You could see that it’s an experiment, and so there were places where they were very respectful of the Handel / biblical text, other places where their playfulness went a bit further.  I think I prefer those places where they really went to town, deconstructing Handel into bits; but after all this IS Messiahville, and so I have to think that the team preparing this adaptation were mindful that some might be offended if they went too far.  We were played with –the audience– as far as the whole classical paradigm, because you really didn’t know who was a performer and who was audience, as they imitated some of that flashmob dynamic we’ve seen before on youtube.  It recoils on itself a bit, because when you have someone walking thru the crowd saying ‘HALLELUJAH’ into people’s faces, you thereby call much of the formality into question, making those places (see photo) where the four soloists sing in concert seem repressed.  At times we had something organic, at other times it bounced back to something closer to a typical Messiah.  But it’s an experiment right?  Overall, lots of fun and many moments of great beauty.  I recall sharing a quiet giggle with the person beside me, recognizing how the opening was being modified.  It’s one of the pleasures of the palimpsest, whereby we glimpse the original through the overlaid layers of new creation, moments of delight in the recognition, which is a great experience so long as one isn’t arriving with too many stipulations.  I know I didn’t have any.

The four soloists: Gabriel Dharmoo, Christine Duncan, Jeremy Dutcher, Carla Huhtanen

The four soloists: Gabriel Dharmoo, Christine Duncan, Jeremy Dutcher, Carla Huhtanen

As with AtG’s version, we had gone to a more popular space, had added movement (although the choreography was a relatively small part compared to what AtG gave us).  But whereas AtG gave a more or less faithful performance musically while playing with the mise-en-scene and adding movement, Soundstreams made big changes in the text and the dramaturgy.  This is really a series of fragments paraphrasing many of the best-known solos and a few of the key choruses.  Many of my favourite numbers are missing, because one can only cover so much in the hour of this very elaborate deconstruction; no ‘Glory to God’ with the angelic soprano, no ‘Lift up your heads’,  and no Part III! Perhaps the biggest change they made was in handing Handel to a very different sort of orchestra.   We had guitars and synths and even so Handel was still discernible.  At times the vocalists – Gabriel Dharmoo, Christine Duncan, Jeremy Dutcher, and Carla Huhtanen –sang alone, sometimes together.  There were passages of varying fidelity to the original, and I have to say that I worry that my usage sounds pejorative, when I really don’t mean to imply that there’s anything wrong with a broad divergence from the text.  We had some mysterious moves from dancer Lybido.  It was a collaborative effort, although some, such as SlowPitch Sound, Ear Candy’s resident DJ, were at times front and centre in that process, while others were more self-effacing.  John Gzowski’s guitar was a prominent contributor at times, although I must also acknowledge Doug Van Nort’s electronics, the Electroacoustic Orchestra of York University, the aforementioned SlowPitch Sound (DJ) and curator Kyle Brenders.  I wonder who did what in this “mix” (the word has at least 2 meanings), not forgetting also the input from dramaturg Ashlie Corcoran, who –in such a new creation—might have functioned as a kind of director.

Jeremy Dutcher sings "Ev'ry Valley" under the watchful eye of Kyle Brenders at the controls.

Jeremy Dutcher sings “Ev’ry Valley” under the watchful eye of Kyle Brenders at the controls.

Suffice it to say that I will say what I always say, as I did after most Tapestry shows, as I did after Bicycle Opera shows, or after most AtG shows: that this is another of those experiments that must continue, and hopefully go further next time.

Next week?  Choose your Messiah..!

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4 Responses to An Electric Messiah comes to Messiahville

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