Andrew Davis’ big beautiful Messiah

Today I was fortunate to attend the last of the Toronto Symphony’s annual performances of the Messiah with the Mendelssohn Choir, employing Andrew Davis’ new (2010) orchestration. I missed it when they offered it last time but hope that Jeff Melanson & TSO make this an annual event, as Davis’ version is a perfect fit. The TSO, TMC, and four high-powered soloists sound wonderful in Roy Thomson Hall.

The Toronto Symphony and Sir Andrew Davis, conductor laureate (photo: Malcolm Cook)

The Toronto Symphony and Sir Andrew Davis, their Conductor Laureate (photo: Malcolm Cook)

Davis, who bears the title of “Conductor Laureate” with the TSO, and who led the TSO at RTH for years including more than a few Messiahs the conventional way, could be expected to have a good sense of the space & the work. Some might call it blasphemy to propose to “fix” the Messiah, that there’s nothing wrong with it. And of course that’s absurd, recognizing that the work has been presented in many different versions in the centuries since its composition.

What Davis has accomplished is like a bit of post-modern thinking, a pragmatic combination of old and new. Hearing Messiah in the 2630 seat Roy Thomson Hall must be a different experience than my historically informed performance (“HIP”) encounter via Tafelmusik a few days ago at the 1135 seat Koerner Hall. So please don’t confuse Davis’ work with the large-scale Messiahs of a half-century ago, as for instance in the famous recording led by Sir Thomas Beecham and featuring Jon Vickers. The scholarship of the HIP crew informs some of what we heard today at RTH, when possible. At other times Davis makes other choices, which I label “pragmatic” in recognition of certain natural limits.

For example, the reverberation time of the space makes it challenging to push the chorus into impossibly quick coloratura –such as what you find in “And he shall purify” from Tafelmusik in the intimate confines of Koerner Hall—without loss of clarity. I sat there watching David address a chorus who are physically so far away from one another at the edges of the stage, that i wonder whether there’s a time delay for those at each end, hearing their colleagues across from them.

But I was surprised at how quickly Davis was able to get the Mendelssohn Choir to go in choruses such as “And With His Stripes“ and “All We Like Sheep”. But here Davis played with the orchestration, adding percussion & winds as though to help accentuate the beat, the way a painter might outline a shape (as in a cartoon or in stained glass) to help us discern those sections. The relative balance was completely different in places from what I heard earlier in the week, as some very muscular sounds from the orchestra helped keep everyone together, even as Davis did a great deal of give and take, between loud & soft sounds. We were treated to some concertante effects, where the orchestra would suddenly drop out leaving just a few soloists, or perhaps a string quartet in accompaniment, suddenly punctuated by a few key accents.

At times Davis’ version resembled an adaptation, where we recognize elements through the new overlaid layers, combinations of the familiar (choruses, soloists, strings & trumpets) and the new (marimba? Sleighbells? Snare-drum? Celesta?). At other times, the word coming to mind was “crossover”, as we were in the presence of something very playful and new. During “All we like sheep” Davis gave a braying animal sound to one of his brass reminding me of nothing so much as the wacky pastoral scene in Richard Strauss’s wonderful tone-poem Don Quixote. The lady sitting in front of me glared at me when I laughed as loudly as the jackass I thought I heard hee-hawing in the orchestra. In my defense I can only say that I laugh just as loudly in church when the minister makes a joke during the sermon.  My laughter was respectful, as i thought i was in the spirit of Davis’ creation.

And while we’re speaking of loudness I should mention the soloists. Only tenor Andrew Staples sang in a manner that the HIP-crowd would recognize, which is logical considering the way the tenor’s part is written.  The other three soloists are more properly understood as opera singers, namely soprano Erin Wall, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong and bass-baritone John Relyea. In Roy Thomson Hall we need their powerful voices even before we look at the extra cojones the orchestra seemed to display.  I don’t believe that the HIP performers from Tafelmusik’s performance –soprano Joanne Lunn excepted—would be audible against this big orchestra in the big space. Relyea’s tone carries, a sound you feel as much as hear, whether asking “why do the nations so furiously rage together” or announcing that “the trumpet shall sound”. DeShong has a stunning sound (although I wish her Part II aria had not been truncated), big and full and opulent at every moment. I’m glad the TSO gave us this opportunity to hear her, as I hope the COC will bring her back again sometime soon. Wall’s voice too carries beautifully.

John Relyea performing Messiah with the TSO in the Toronto premiere of Sir Andrew Davis's orchestration in 2010 (Photo: John Loper) Francine

John Relyea performing Messiah with the TSO in the Toronto premiere of Sir Andrew Davis’s orchestration in 2010 (Photo: John Loper) Francine

Yet the day belongs to the Mendelssohn Choir and especially to the orchestra in Davis’ brilliant creation, sometimes as though refreshed and modernized, sometimes a tidier version of our old friend.  In this version, the Hall, the Choir and the Orchestra are so well-matched, i can only wish that the TSO will bring back Davis’ version every year.

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