Sing-Along Messiah 2018

You can change the location but the song remains the same. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra & Chamber Choir led by Herr Handel himself gave us their annual sing-along Messiah.

The previous 37 have been at Massey Hall, but this time renovation forced us into Roy Thomson Hall instead.

Playful old George Frideric had some fun with the name of the venue. Last year he called it “Roy Rogers Hall.” This year he got a little closer, calling it “Tom Thomson Hall” before finally explaining who Roy Thomson was, admittedly with help from above.


Herr Handel stares off into space, disconcerted to receive a special message telling him that no it’s not Tom Thomson Hall.

Above? The telegram is ostensibly from the creator, and helped set Herr Handel straight. He also told us that when God is displeased he addresses him as “George”. Because as we all know, God is an Englishman.

I had a bit of an epiphany, and not because the creator sent me any special messengers. No, I was just taking it all in,  in the lobby, in the bathroom, in my seat, wherever I went, I couldn’t help noticing the nerdy energy.

I had observed the special audience this past Wednesday at Tongue in Cheek’s Verbotenlieder: everyone at Lula Lounge knew the music being presented. But that small gathering of aficionados was nothing compared to what we saw today at Roy Rogers Hall.
If people can sing Bohemian Rhapsody (and they did so long before the film about Freddie Mercury) or Rocky Horror Show or Mamma Mia: why shouldn’t we do it for Messiah? This crowd of 2000 + armed with scores and seated by section are riding the same kind of high, except we get a bit of extra juice from the Christmas Season.

I feel like a bit of a fraud, I must say. I’ve stopped being a paid church-choir soloist because my singing isn’t what it used to be. While I still can honk out a few high B-flats if necessary (and church solos never get anywhere near that high) I used to have a D-flat, a C, a B…but gulp no longer. At one time I could sing through all of the Messiah choruses without getting very tired, but that was then. Now I am a spent force by the time of the tenor high ‘A’ on the last page of the “Amen” (that echoes the soprano ‘A’ a bar earlier). This year, just like last year, I sat in a mixed section rather than among tenors because I wasn’t sure what I’d be able to hit. At times I had to falsetto my high notes because I was just too pooped.

Yet the people sitting nearby were so gracious it’s amazing. It was a very Toronto kind of moment, to feel such warmth from total strangers, even as I was grateful to be there at all. People are nice here and you really see it at events such as this.

Aiding and abetting the warmth were the four soloists.

Tenor Charles Daniels gave us the first solos. I wonder if someone has ever done a dissertation on the ways in which one sings “Comfort Ye”, as today’s examples from Daniels were exemplary. In his improvisatory passages, themselves a brief sermon on taking comfort from the good news he brings, I heard the most remarkable bold explorations of comfort and peace, as enacted in his few calming notes. And in the cadenza to finish his opening aria “Ev’ry Valley” I believe I heard the highest note I’ve ever heard interpolated, namely a brief high B. It’s a bit of a mind—boggler that the baroque virtuoso impulse that might direct our gaze to the soloist as a showoff is so perfectly compatible with the message in the text: when carried out by someone as scrupulous as Daniels.

Krisztina Szabó might be the most versatile singer I know in Toronto. One of the go-to performers when it comes to new music, having made her mark at Covent Garden recently in George Benjamin’s new opera, that doesn’t preclude regular appearances in works such as Messiah. Hers is a voice and a mind of great accuracy. To this day I’m certain I’ve never heard her sing off pitch. As with Daniels, there’s a textual integrity alongside the musicianship. I was not surprised to find myself tearing up as she sang “Behold your God”, barely able to sing because my voice is all coming apart and emotional as we (the chorus, on the very next page) answer about good tidings. It’s such an insane thrill to be singing in the same show –admittedly from the 2500 or so in the audience—and not like anything else I know of.  It’s a good thing there are so many other voices to cover up my mistakes.

Similar pleasures lie in wait when we meet our soprano, Sherezade Panthaki. The recitatives of the soprano telling of the shepherds & angels on Christmas Eve are some of the most remarkable writing of anything from Handel. No it’s not Wagner, but wow, the music has such suspense and excitement, the pace & the accompaniment raising one’s heart-rate even before she sings “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heav’nly hosts, praising God and saying…“ Much as I enjoyed watching this performed a few days ago by the TSO, there’s no comparison between watching, as opposed to following this in your score, and then getting to answer as part of a huge multitude singing “Glory to God, glory to God, glory to God in the highest!… and peace on Earth”. It’s also very cool that the tenors are (I think) the only section who get to be BOTH in the higher voiced group saying “glory to God” as well as the calm answering lower voices saying “And peace on Earth”. Yes I know it’s a vicarious thing, just like what I spoke of on Wednesday, the envy of one who wishes to be in the show. The singalong impulse is the most natural thing. Of course Panthaki sounded marvelous, although it’s hard to be objective about such things when you’re singing such exciting music.

Likewise baritone Drew Santini: who sang the solo number that received the highest applause, as with last year’s singalong. “Behold I tell you a mystery” followed by “The trumpet shall sound” is one of the climactic numbers in a work that goes far beyond telling  a mere story. I remember the first times I encountered this number played on historically authentic instruments, as you find in an ensemble such as Tafelmusik: when there were fluffs aplenty. In those days the trumpet did indeed sound: but not necessarily in tune. The Toronto Symphony could always be secure in the knowledge that their sound—from modern valved brass instruments—were at least more accurate in intonation. That was the trade-off in the old days: that while modern isn’t what Handel had, at least they’d play it right, and sounding better than the authentic instrument. But I don’t think that logic applies anymore, not when Tafelmusik have someone who can play the old style trumpets brilliantly.

Excuse me if so much of this review seems self-centred, as though I’m reviewing myself and the way I sang the choruses of Messiah. My head was mostly down in my Novello score, at least during our choruses. When we were singing of course that means we couldn’t hear the Tafelmusik chorus as well as we would had this been a regular Messiah. They’re a magnificent ensemble, who we could hear and rely upon to help us when we got lost (as I did a couple of times when I didn’t turn the page fast enough). They’re accurate & have a beautiful sound. I should also mention that other Tafelmusik namely the orchestra. Of course I think they sounded great, and again I wasn’t paying them much attention, even in the solo numbers.

Next year I want to do this again, but I will look the music over, making sure I actually know my part. If you’re a church chorister or soloist who knows some of this music, you should consider taking in the Sing-along.


Soloists (l-r) Sherezade Panthaki, Krisztina Szabo, Charles Daniels & Drew Santini, taking in one of Herr Handel’s tirades. AND the program reminds us: “Any resemblance of Mr Handel to any persons living and/or dead, in particular Tafelmusik Chamber Choir director Ivars Taurins, is unintentional, bot not entirely coincidental.”

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Reviews, Spirituality & Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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