All’s Well in Messiahville

Toronto is known for a few things. We’re a very knowledgeable hockey town, even if that’s often been a special kind of torture. We’re possibly the most genuinely multi-cultural city in the world, embracing all colours of the rainbow, including that LGBTQ rainbow as well. It’s known as a clean city, as a polite city notwithstanding some outrageous displays of rudeness during the recent baseball playoffs.

While Toronto’s downtown is full of churches, many of them have been re-purposed as condos, divorced from their original religious roots, in an era when attendance in protestant congregations is apparently in freefall.

And yet there’s a reason I jokingly call this city “Messiahville”, because Handel is probably the most popular most programmed composer. There are many flavours of Messiah, whether the larger than life versions presented by the Toronto Symphony, the alternative electric version from Soundstreams the past two years, the historically informed performances one gets from Tafelmusik Orchestra & Choir, or the many local versions & excerpts found in churches all over town.

Tonight was the Tafelmusik Koerner Hall experience. While it may have been a night of inclement weather that didn’t stop most of us, as the hall was pretty full. I proclaim that “all’s well” in Messiahville because the shows keep getting better. They have to, given such a discerning community of listeners.

Ivars Taurins, who portrays “Herr Handel” in the annual singalong, isn’t merely affecting a role. On the other nights, when we’re listening rather than joining in, Taurins is every bit as invested in channeling the composer, in finding a pathway to the essence of this marvelous oratorio. Every time he seems to get deeper into the role, because he’s getting deeper into the work.

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Ivars Taurins (photo: Sian Richards)

Taurins is a remarkably physical conductor, but not in the sense of someone who is merely balletic, as the movements are all intimately wedded to the music. When there’s a big line he gives us –and the choir—a big gesture, to punctuate that moment. And he brings the same ear to his leadership of the orchestra, treating them as another group of voices integrated into the whole. It’s an enactment whose playfulness drills deeper into something genuine & true. Nowhere was this more evident than in the attacks Taurins coaxed from the timpanist. Taurins often prolongs climaxes, making a great deal of drama out of the last bars of some of these numbers. We’re accustomed by now to predictable cadences in the classical world, and why should that be? Taurins gives us something delightfully different.

The Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chamber Choir respond to Taurins sinuous movements, as though extensions of that fluid body, voices entering and answering as clearly as if you were inside the composer’s head.  At times the Choir are pushed to the limit, as in “And He shall purify,” taken at a breathless pace yet sung with the precise clarity of flames flickering in the light.  At other times they’re part of Taurins’ drama, as in a Hallelujah Chorus that builds oh so gradually, teasing us with mini-climaxes, and only fully opening up on the last pages.  They’re in a groove right now, matching this hall’s acoustic perfectly, every syllable crisp & clear.  I’m in awe of the choral story-telling, whether in the debating in “Lift Up Your Heads”, the passion agonies of Part Two, or a courtroom summation direct from Revelation, as we’re told: “Worthy Is the Lamb”.  Taurins and Tafelmusik Orchestra & Choir are one of Toronto’s treasures, and should perhaps be included in guidebooks as a must-see / must-hear event each December for any visitor.

I think this is the most impressive quartet of soloists I’ve ever encountered in a Messiah performance. Each one had at least one amazing moment of authenticity, blowing the lid off the usual way that music is done.

Krisztina Szabo has been ubiquitous in this town of late, often in modernist works on the opera stage. How refreshing, then, to see her not in a new opera, not in something atonal or dissonant, but something well-known. Yet her “He was despised” was fresh, especially in the taut drama of the middle section. Every few moments in “he gave his back to the smiters” she seemed to take on a different emotion, sometimes seeming furious, sometimes sad, sometimes compassionate. The da capo of “He was despised” was especially rich, sung in a softer sound, as though completely heart-broken.

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Soprano Amanda Forsythe

Amanda Forsythe is the best soprano soloist I’ve heard in Messiah in quite awhile. The soprano gets some of the best music –for instance channeling an angel in the narration of Christmas Eve—and will usually be memorable so long as they’re more or less in tune. Forsythe sang with great restraint, impeccable taste, and an irrepressible friendliness manifested in eye contact with others onstage. I’ve probably mentioned my pickiness with respect to “I know the My Redeemer liveth”, a number that is sometimes undermined by too much enthusiasm; if you try to persuade us that you know that your redeemer liveth, you will sound as though you don’t really believe. The simplicity of Forsythe’s delivery persuaded me, particularly on several high notes attacked with delicacy rather than boldness.

This was my second experience of Colin Balzer, and I feel he and Taurins have deepened their reading substantially since last time. Improvisation seemed possible in almost every number, particularly “thou shalt break them”, an aria that was like an eruption of energy.  His tone is achingly lovely throughout.

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Baritone Tyler Duncan

I was particularly pleased on my first encounter with baritone Tyler Duncan, speaking as a younger brother of a baritone who grew up craving brilliance from everyone and being frustrated more often than not. I heard something new in several numbers.  In “the trumpet shall sound” we were in the presence of testimony, as he shared a mystery with us. At times in this big bold aria he seemed to be whispering, spilling the beans of something intensely personal and internal even as the orchestra played loudly. It was truly magical. Yet when he wanted to celebrate in this same aria he gave us the feeling of jubilation, something extemporaneous and unpredictable.

I have to think that Taurins is the key, as he seems to be inviting his soloists to explore and probe, as each of them finds an intriguing place in their approach to the music and text, that is never an operatic portrayal but instead a kind of testimony or confession.

Tafelmusik Orchestra & Choir present Handel’s Messiah at Koerner Hall Friday and Saturday, with the singalong Sunday at Massey Hall. Information.

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3 Responses to All’s Well in Messiahville

  1. I’m going to my first Sing-Along on Sunday, and I can’t wait. (Isn’t Amanda great? I only know her from The Toob, but she has sung some insane ornaments with Apollo’s Fire, for example)

  2. barczablog says:

    Great indeed! I had originally meant to go to the singalong this year but i have to be somewhere else, so i shuffled dates a bit. Have fun! Ivars aka Herr Handel is glorious.

  3. Penelope Tyndale says:

    I have sung in The Messiah numerous times and in the Sing-Along and been to many performances, but this was the first time being at Tafelmusik’s performance and it was a glorious experience in every way and probably the closest to Handel’s original production.

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