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SCRUTINY | Snow Storm Hinders An Otherwise Rocky Tafelmusik Messiah

By Brian Chang on December 17, 2016

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir (Photo: Sian Richards)
Tafelmusik Chamber Choir (Photo: Sian Richards)

Handel’s Messiah: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. Dec. 15, at Koerner Hall.

Snow. So much snow. Unfortunately, all the snow got in the way of getting to Koerner Hall on time for Tafelmusik’s Messiah. A good 50 or 60 people found themselves in a similar situation, all arriving after the performance started, myself included.

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir were joined by American Amanda Forsythe (Soprano), and Canadians Krisztina Szabó (Mezzo-Soprano), Colin Balzer (Tenor), and Tyler Duncan (Baritone) at Koerner Hall.

The chamber choir are fantastic musicians who know their voices and the music extremely well. Their faces and expressions showed their commitment and love of the music. Most of them were off-book for most of the music; singing attentively and joyously. The performance of “The Lord gave the word” was particularly strong and balanced. Some of the hardest fugal runs in “His yoke is easy” and “For unto us a child is born” were effortlessly crafted. The expression and storytelling of the choir came across immensely; especially the heart-breaking invocations of hurt and brokenness during “Surely he hath borne our griefs”.

With only one double bass on continuo, the orchestra came across a bit top-heavy in the higher registers. The large contingent of sopranos also contributed to an imbalanced sound.

At times, disagreement between the choir and orchestra were also apparent. Where the choir and soloist articulations were precise and energized, the orchestra did not always meet them with the same style. This was most noticeable in “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion”; and especially in the chorus “Let us break their bonds asunder”. The choirs distinct staccatissimo was diminished by legato playing in the strings.

Krisztina Szabó’s rendition of “He was despised” was sung with a warm and buttery texture. Her first way through the subject was declaratory. The da capo was nuanced with feelings of incredulity and disbelief. She was broken-hearted as she told this story. Surprising even me, this wonderful aria was my favorite of the evening.

The artistic, insular approach to the “Hallelujah” left me feeling odd. Taurins made dynamic choices I have never seen before. At no point does the choir reach a fortissimo. The initial “King of Kings”, a powerful punctuation in the music was performed at a pianissimo with a slight shape. An even more bizarre dynamic choice finished the chorus on a mezzo-forte. The nuance showed remarkable restraint, focus, and intention. I liked the addition of trills in the choir. However, the performance felt unfinished and unsatisfying.

Amanda Forsythe’s soprano rang clear through the hall; light placement of notes, exquisite softness, and effortless runs characterized her performance. “I know that my redeemer liveth” was an absolute beauty. Forsythe’s pitched consonants provided a remarkable clarity to her singing. On vocal runs, she maintained centered pitch while remaining artistically phrased — not an easy task. Koerner Hall was made for a soprano of Forsythe’s talent and artistry; let us hope this is not the last time she performs here.

The soprano version of “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart” was chosen over the tenor; which as a tenor had me, a bit galled. However, Forsythe delivered a gentle, sad, soft interpretation that was refreshing. Colin Belzer’s tenor was warm and carried effortlessly into the hall. His warning with “Thou shalt break them” was clear and present. Unfortunately, I missed him in action for the opening tenor arias.

The “Trumpet will Sound” missed the mark of the evening. This well-known show stopper featured a period trumpet that seemed intent on fitting its sound into the strings instead of soaring above. The tail ends of phrases in the trumpet and orchestra dimmed in volume consistently; ultimately sounding defeated, not triumphant. Duncan’s artistic choice led him to sound jolly instead of declarative and heralding. Ivars took the not-often-performed bridge before the dal segno which repeats about half of the aria. The second time through provided additional ornamentations in Duncan and the trumpet.

“Worthy is the Lamb”, the penultimate movement of the work, was performed at a surprising mezzo-forte. Later, the fugal entries brought an even softer dynamic. The volume never really picked up. The concluding “Amen” was slow, common in baroque interpretations of the work. Taurins spent the last page of this work very intently focused on the timpani. The final choral note of the evening started to peter out before Taurins cued a sustain with a light crescendo to finish off the work.

At just under 3 hours long, with an intermission and an interval — this was a long Messiah. The Tafelmusik interpretation reminded me that there is so much in the work that most conductors never pay attention too. Almost every single song was performed that night; some I’ve rarely heard including the choruses “Let all the angels of God worship him”, “But thanks be to God”, and the rather comical sounding duet “O death, where is thy sting”.

Ivars Taurins displayed masterful understanding and artistic execution. The orchestra and choir responded to his gestures, often quite grand. His physical communication drove the phrasing throughout the work. To conduct like this for such an extended period is a remarkable physical workout. I would hazard a broad statement and say that in Toronto, there is likely no conductor who joyously loves “Messiah” as much as Ivars Taurins. Our city, and the choral community are better because of this.

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