Tafelmusik Messiah

There is a trinity of Messiahs this week in different venues running until the weekend. Although there are two others—Toronto Symphony in Andrew Davis’s re-orchestration employing the Mendelssohn Choir and Against the Grain’s choreographed version — I went to see Tafelmusik Orchestra & Chorus at Koerner Hall. The three are completely distinct:

  • TSO offers the big fat sound
  • AtG is the smallest ensemble and physically mobile
  • Tafemusik’s is arguably the most authentic presentation of Handel’s sacred oratorio

Messiah is one of those works that stands alongside Hamlet or Beethoven’s 9th, works one encounters again and again in a lifetime. I had the additional pleasure of taking along a friend who hasn’t seen the work in awhile: a pleasure I heartily recommend. Seeing and hearing Messiah through the eyes & ears of the person beside you who’s revisiting their old friend, you get a fresh perspective. Or as an act of outreach you might consider taking someone to Messiah who has never seen it before: that is, if you’re able to find tickets to something so beloved by Torontonians. Some brave souls want to take in three Messiahs in one day later this week; check the hashtag #MessiahCrawl for further information. Clearly some people can handle a lot of Handel. And I can’t deny that I’ll be hearing this music again before the week is out.

To see Tafelmusik Orchestra & Chorus under Ivars Taurins performing for a knowledgeable crowd is to penetrate deeply into the work. As I look back on the evening, it’s a bit like a workshop, recalling lessons learned, insights offered by conductor, chorus, orchestra and four wonderful soloists: soprano Joanne Lunn, mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi, tenor Rufus Müller and baritone Nathaniel Watson.

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, directed by Ivars Taurins (left foreground). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Authenticity –a word I used earlier –can be a bit of a can of worms, and wasn’t something I brought up in the interest of any sort of deep analysis, but rather to distinguish this experience from the other two on offer. The historically informed style mostly helps make the singing intelligible, brisk tempi that help soloists, although the chorus are at times pushed. When Tafelmusik sing “And He Shall Purify” –the chorus immediately following the lines “for He is like a refiner’s fire”—it is as though the singers themselves are undergoing a kind of purification trial-by-fire, in their unerring precision. Or at least that’s what I imagine, not wanting to attempt this myself. They make it sound easy. 

My favourite chorus is one that seems to enact a kind of dialogue, one found in the original text of ”Lift Up Your Heads”. It’s a thrill watching the physical eloquence of Taurins leading the sections of the chorus, as he gets a genuine back and forth conversation happening before us, a miniature drama enacted within a few minutes.

Each soloist has opportunities to shine. Müller starts us off with two of the most visceral words in the entire work, provided one seizes that opportunity. When he sings “Comfort Ye” it’s truly an exhortation to take comfort, to relax, to feel better. The beauty of the voice is a great start, but there’s a gentleness in the way he seizes the moment, stopping us and the oratorio in our collective tracks, making us breathe and feel calmness. Nesi’s eloquence in the opening of Part II was especially welcome. I found myself especially attracted to the lower notes she sang, a wonderful rich colour that never impaired the clarity of her delivery in so many important lines, such as “behold your God”, and the entirety of “He was despised”. Watson did not thunder when he gave us the voice of God telling us he “will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land,” but rather a calm authority, clear & strong. Lunn employs a beautiful tone that grabs you every time she begins to sing, her unmistakeable sincerity adding an additional layer to the performance.

My head resounds with so many wonderful moments, I’m glad I’ll be hearing this music again before too long. How about you?

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2 Responses to Tafelmusik Messiah

  1. quistian says:

    My wife and I attended last evening as well. We are “seasoned” Messiah goers, so therefore perhaps a bit hard to please but last evening was scintillatingly refreshing! We felt both the orchestra and chorus very tight musically, able to make a big sound at any time, and were very much in the groove, even though it was opening night. As we were sitting almost on top of the stage we got a new perspective on the conductor Ivars Taurins and his magical dance movements (without ever lifting his feet from the floor) and his extreme intimacy with all the musicians. The facial expressions alone were worth the price of admission! I felt the entire performance was balanced: soloists, orchestra, chorus and conductor. There were no stars, and yet they all shone in their own way. Lunn stepped out of the stiffness a bit with her facial and slight body movements. I found her outfit a bit too “Disneyesque” but that’s a tertiary point. Like yourself, I felt the opening voice expressing “Comfort Ye” set the tone for the evening.

    There were lots of other little things that I found entertaining: the introduction of the soloists for applause and appreciation between acts, the seriousness facial expressions of the violin section to mirror the music and words and last but not least, the finicky timpanist, who really thought that his minor and continual adjustments of his two skins were going to elevate his 4 minutes of showtime into rarefied air.

    All in all, a thrilling and memorable evening.

    • barczablog says:

      Aha i envy you that view (of Taurins facial expressions), which might only be surpassed by actually singing in the chorus. I agree that the entire experience was balanced, that everyone played a part. Oh and for what it’s worth i liked Lunn’s dress; i thought she was as beautiful to watch as to hear, but then again as a grand-parent i’m sometimes immersed in Disney. Thank you for your remarks!

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