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SCRUTINY | Messiah on Messiah Turns Out Even

By Michael Vincent on December 18, 2015

Sir Andrew Davis conducts members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir at Roy Thomson Hall
Sir Andrew Davis conducts members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir at Roy Thomson Hall

Handel’s Messiah

Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Sir Andrew Davis, conductor. To Dec. 20 at Roy Thomson Hall. 416-593-7769 or tso.ca 

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. Ivars Taurins, conductor. To Dec. 20 at Koerner Hall, 416-408-0208. tafelmusik.org

[Originally published in the Toronto Star]

Toronto boasts over 30 Messiah’s performed across the city, and perhaps with the exception of New York City, makes Toronto Messiah Central.

While there are a wide variety of offerings, The Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Tafelmusik remain the two standbys. Without being too competitive, it’s always fun to compare them, which no doubt means I will receive my share of angry letters from righteous readers, but I will go ahead and put on my helmet, so as to block myself from injury.

Starting with the TSO, conductor laureate Sir Andrew Davis returned this year to perform his “Mega Messiah,” arrangement, which featured prominent organ parts, added marimba, and divisi sections that broke off into mini-subsets. It’s was an unbuttoned yet colourful assemblage that stands apart from the 19th-century revamps by Mozart and Goossens, who both expanded the orchestration in favour of a denser sound.

With the performance being recorded live for an upcoming CD, it was disappointing to hear many in the audience cough their way through the performance with abandon. There were late-comers galore, who seemed to oddly relish the limelight as they sauntered to their centre row seats while everyone looked on with fury.

There was also clapping between each of movements, and considering there are a total of 45, prompted TSO CEO Jeff Melanson to make an unscheduled announcement suggesting that if people wanted to get home before dawn, they should save the appreciates for the end. Thankfully they did, or I’d likely still be in my seat.

Backed by the always stunning Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the results were slightly mixed with the soloists. Bass-baritone John Relyea’s vocal colouring and word-by-word infections seemed at times too brash for the Oratorio. Tenor Andre Staples sang admirably but seemed to hold back during dramatic moments. The standouts were mezzo Elizabeth DeShong, a singer new to me, who sang with a rounded tone that mixed well with the orchestra and choir. Soprano Erin Wall was vibrant throughout and reminded me why she is one of my favourite Messiah sopranos anywhere.

Adding to the tone salad was a cohesive orchestra that at times acted like a single instrument made of many. One give-off however, was Davis’ painfully slow tempo for the second part Air, which lingered upwards like a lost balloon.

With all the gruff-coughers, late-comers, and over-clappers, let’s hope it goes more smoothly for the remainder of the TSO’s Messiah run.

As for Tafelmusik, they opened strong to a sold-out Koerner Hall and were joined (customarily) by the Prince of Messiah himself, Director Ivars Taurins, who is celebrating his 34th consecutive year of conducting the Messiah in Toronto.

The evening was made all the better for the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, which has the amazing ability to sound much larger than they are.

Soloists included Tafelmusik mainstays Rufus Müller (tenor) and Nathaniel Watson (baritone), as well as Joanne Lunn (soprano) and Mary-Ellen Nesi (mezzo) and each provided depth to the four vocal roles. The standout was Müller –  the only one performing without a score – who sang with a unique and beautifully subtle tone.

While Tafelmusik’s kept the ship steady on the Messiah sea, it was perhaps overly so. But looking over to see Taurins’ boundless enthusiasm for the work, it is a representation of the celebratory spirit of Handel’s most performed work.

Between the TSO’s Mammoth Messiah and Tafelmusik’s more diminutive approach, choose your poison – you can’t go wrong with either of them.


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Michael Vincent
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