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Concert review: Toronto Symphony makes Messiah magic at Roy Thomson Hall

By John Terauds on December 18, 2012

Russell Braun sings at the opening night of Toronto Symphony's Messiah at Roy Thomson Hall on Tuesday (Dale Wilcox photo).
Russell Braun sings on opening night of the Toronto Symphony’s Messiah at Roy Thomson Hall on Tuesday (Dale Wilcox photo).

There was an audible, palpable buzz in the air after Tuesday evening’s first Toronto Symphony Orchestra performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. It was like going home after a pop concert.

The Toronto Symphony and its many guests on stage had earned every single one of the hundreds of loud shouts of Bravo! that rang out after the music stopped.

This was my 12th consecutive annual TSO Messiah — the second led by conductor Nicholas McGegan — and I’m pretty sure it was the best.

Let me count the ways.

First, the soloists.

It was nice enough to have tenor Michael Schade and baritone Russell Braun back on one of the stages on which Toronto first fell in love with them. But they — along with countertenor Daniel Taylor in fine voice — also brought a deep appreciation for the words they were singing, imbuing the often technically challenging music with the appropriate emotion.

The three men were joined by a newcomer to Toronto, young American soprano Yulia Van Doren. It was immediately clear why she has been creating flutters of  excitement in the Baroque-music world. Her coloratura technique was as impressive as the warmth of her delivery on Tuesday night, proving that she is an exceptional find.

Then there was the chorus.

Rather than being spread out in the choir loft one level above the stage, 135 members of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir were clustered on risers directly behind the orchestra, giving an overall focus and compactness to the sound that flattered McGegan’s interpretation.

The choir’s balance was excellent, their singing precise. The women, especially, were in fine voice, singing and sounding as one.

We can’t forget the orchestra.

There were only 34 members of the Toronto Symphony playing through most of the piece (two trumpeters and a timpanist stepped in briefly when needed, as in the Hallelujah Chorus), but they more than held their own against the huge choir.

McGegan had everyone playing period-style, with shorter strokes of the bow and next to no vibrato on the stringed instruments. But the real finesse of the musicianship arrayed on that stage came out when only a handful of instruments would accompany a solo aria.

Principal Bass Jeffrey Beecher’s careful, subtle work gorgeously underpinned continuo sections with elegant stripes of sound.

And the whole wouldn’t be complete without the conductor.

McGegan brought the sort of subtlety that usually comes from a resident conductor’s years of work with an orchestra to Tuesday’s performance. There was also a lightness about it that could convey deep drama one moment and blessed relief the next. The music danced, it breathed — and, best of all, it was alive with light and immediacy.

All in all, these are the ingredients Messiah magic is made of.

Yes, it would have been nice to hear the whole work, not a version with cuts. And, yes, Roy Thomson Hall is a few hundred seats too large for Baroque music done with an appropriate-sized orchestra. But neither of these quibbles is worth worrying about when you can get a youthful, 2012 audience excited about a piece of music premiered in 1742.


For details on the four remaining performances by the Toronto Symphony this week, click here.

John Terauds


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