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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Concert review: This could be the Toronto Symphony's best Messiah so far this century

By John Terauds on December 18, 2013

Christopher Warren-Green conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir at Roy Thomson Hall on Tuesday night (Josh Clavir photo).
Christopher Warren-Green conducts members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir at Roy Thomson Hall on Tuesday night (Josh Clavir photo).

Tuesday’s first performance of the Toronto Symphony’s five-concert run of Handel’s oratorio Messiah at Roy Thomson Hall was that rare beast: a triumph from brisk Overture to rousing Amen.

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.

This interpretation has it all: great soloists, a lean, expressive orchestra, superb choir and a cohesive performance approach from a veteran British conductor making his Toronto Symphony début.

In most respects, this Toronto Symphony Messiah succeeds because it does what Tafelmusik does so well — while using modern instead of period instruments.

The 35 instrumentalists, including Tafelmusik lute master Lucas Harris, looked a bit sparse on the hall’s spacious stage — and surrounded by the 140-plus members of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in the gallery right above — but the sound was full and satisfying, produced using the more rhythmically lively playing styles of a baroque orchestra, with the strings playing without vibrato.

Conductor Christopher Warren-Green was in total control from beginning to end, attending to the sort of detail that many visiting maestros overlook. He teased out gorgeous, subtle textures from Handel’s well-worn score, and provided precise guidance for the choir.

Warren-Green also played up contrasts both dynamically and in tempo, much more so than usual, extending the evening to a full 2-1/2 hours with intermission. But the time was well spent, especially given the care and beauty with which everything was presented.

The Toronto Symphony hired soloists of operatic scope, providing the critical vocal mass to fill Roy Thomson Hall to its rafters. All four also lent warmth to their vocal power, suffusing their solos with extra emotional resonance as well as beauty.

Swedish soprano Klara Ek was a welcome return guest after making her début last spring on the same stage in Brahms’ German Requiem. She sang with touching simplicity.

The two Canadians — tenor John Tessier and baritone Russell Braun, a replacement for John Relyea, who is ill — sang with grace as well as conviction. Braun outdid himself with some vocal pyrotechnics to match the brass soloist’s in The Trumpet Shall Sound near the end.

American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo — heard on the Canadian Opera Company stage, but never before with the TSO — was in extraordinary voice throughout.

The Toronto Symphony does not necessarily have to present us with a baroque-lean Messiah, but it has — on its own terms. And those are very satisfying.

For details on the remaining performances, click here.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
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