Handel’s Messiah: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra with soloists Yulia Van Doren (soprano), Abigail Levis (mezzo-soprano), Isaiah Bell (tenor), Daniel Okulitch (bass-baritone), and the Toronto Mendelsohn Choir. Roy Thomson Hall, Dec. 18.
Braving a Sunday afternoon in downtown Toronto during a busy holiday shopping weekend is no job for amateurs. So when the Toronto Symphony Orchestra opened their annual Messiah this past Sunday, I jumped at the chance to spend an afternoon with Handel’s holiday classic.
I wasn’t alone. There were hoards of people in puffy winter parkas with the same idea. As a balm to the busyness happening just yards away, a very different kind of Messiah unfolded.
This year’s shift away from the TSO’s “Mega Messiah” was a welcome return to the smaller, baroque-styled focus led by conductor Nicholas McGegan. While I’m not nearly brave enough to argue for one approach over the other, the results spoke for themselves and McGegan’s approach was embraced with open arms.
Returning after his TSO debut in 2015 was tenor Isaiah Bell, who was a compliment to the role. Alongside bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, both voices took the technical challenges of the work with a swaggered ease. Most importantly, their way was paved with the required personality and emotion that kept the things moving forward.
Mezzo-soprano Abigail Levis, along with Okulitch, made her TSO debut with a strong personality and a voice to match.
Yulia Van Doren, was perhaps the strongest of them all, especially her unique vocal ornamentation that fluttered through the work like a tropical songbird.
As for the chorus, the Toronto Mendelsohn Choir were on stage arranged on risers behind the orchestra. The aural effect was worthwhile. Rather than the typical arrangement of situating the chorus in the choir loft, on stage allowed for a centralised and cohesive reference emanating through the orchestra.
TMC’s female voices were in particularly fine form, and the overall balance was both polished and powerful. I think we all agree how lucky we are in Toronto to have a choir like the TMC to keep choral music at such a high standard in our city.
The orchestra, not to be outdone, played with particular focus on the transparency of the sound. The near vibrato-less strings were played with relatively short bow strokes. While one could say that the sound was thin and lacking in colour, the idea here was to create a glassy sound which functioned a bit like more like a film score, which allowed the narrative to live out front.
Even with our modern-day penchant for the huge, dense explosions of sound that Roy Thomson Hall was acoustically built for, McGegan has become a serious and convincing voice for the baroque approach to Messiah.
In a sentence, this year’s TSO Messiah was about the collective soloists, orchestra, choir, and one conductor, McGegan, with the vision to put them all together — just so.
The TSO’s Messiah run through Dec. 23. Details and tickets found, here.