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SCRUTINY | Soundstreams Zaps Handel's Messiah to Life

By Michael Vincent on December 11, 2015

Jeremy Dutcher, Christine Duncan, Carla Huhtanen and Gabriel Dharmoo. Electric Messiah (Photo: Claire Harvie)
Jeremy Dutcher, Christine Duncan, Carla Huhtanen and Gabriel Dharmoo. Electric Messiah (Photo: Claire Harvie)

Soundstreams Electric Messiah at The Drake Hotel Underground, December 8, 2015.

A DJ, a dancer namedLybido, a laptop ensemble, an electric guitarist and four singers all walk into a bar… It sounds like the setup to a punchline, but this was no joke. Soundstreams’ Electic Messiah just might be the most innovative production this year.

Instead of another traditional performance of Messiah, (at last count there are over 30 in Toronto this season) Soundstreams went existential asking what is Messiah, rather than what was Messiah. Curator Kyle Brenders answered with a motley crew including dramaturg Ashlie Corcoran, lighting designer Patrick Lavender, electronic artist Doug Van Noort.

They took Messiah apart, note by note, and rebuilt it into an hour-long assemblage that dipped the Drake Hotel attendees into a sensorial immersion soup – leaving them looking about in wonder as the spectacle unfolded around them.

Soundstreams' Electric Messiah at the Drake Hotel Underground
Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah at the Drake Hotel Underground (Photo: Soundstreams)

After an opening by the York University Electroacoustic Orchestra, the focus centred on the four vocalists: Gabriel Dharmoo, Christine Duncan, Jeremy Dutcher and Carla Huhtanen, who sang adapted English-language text from the Messiah. It was accompanied by solo electric guitarist John Gzowski, and were interspersed with segments performed by DJ SlowPitch, who remixed recordings of Messiah with some tasteful “beats”.

At one point a solo dancer “Lybido” slinked about the room like a cat at a dinner party, undulating to the beat driving the Messiah into the 21st century. Sitting in ball claw chairs, curious spectators watched on, sipping their craft beers, making sense of it all.

The vocal elements, like the original, attempted to hold some of the emotional weight as a conventional Messiah, and this seemed to be the primary driver. The overall structure followed the Handel’s Messiah only loosely, but included narrative references to Isaiah’s prophecy of salvation, the coming judgement, the prophecy of Christ’s birth, healing and redemption, and concluded with the final acclamation of the Messiah.

Soundstreams' Electric Messiah (Photo: Soundstreams)
Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah (Photo: Soundstreams)

There were more than a few dramatic tricks played on the crowd, namely planted vocalists sitting in the audience who inexplicably rose from their seats and paced around repeating “Hallelujah” as a kind of rejoice.

This was an almost sculptural approach to the Messiah and embraced improvised electroacoustic and vocal techniques in an abstract, yet significant way. Building upon the audience’s own concepts of the Handel’s Messiah; this proved a mental scaffold from which to view the performance.

Technologically-mediated with a mix of voice and electronics from various live and pre-recorded sources, one of the most challenging aspects must have been the live mix balance of these separate elements (some scored, some improvised).  I’m sure this must have made for an interesting rehearsal process. Kudos for getting through it!

Soundstreams Ear Candy series continues with Electric Counterpoint on March 19th, 2016. Details here.

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Michael Vincent
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Michael Vincent

Michael Vincent is the Editor-in-chief Ludwig van Toronto. He publishes regularly and writes occasionally. He has worked as a senior editor for over fifteen years and is a former freelance classical music critic for the Toronto Star. Michael holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Toronto.
Michael Vincent
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