Tafelmusik: Handel’s Messiah at Koerner Hall. Dec. 13 – 16, 2017. See our Datebook Calendar for showtimes.
Let us now praise Messiah. Along with other cultural traditions throughout December, George Frederic Handel’s Messiah remains on the program year-after-year as the one concert audiences are determined — or will make time — to see. And while Handel’s Messiah gets its fair share of ribbing for being the concert in December that will never go away, I feel that it’s time to give Messiah its due as one of the great classics of Western music.
And I do mean “classic” in every sense of the word. Since its debut performance in 1741, performances of Messiah have been heard at least once a year throughout the English-speaking world to this day, making it the oldest piece of music anywhere that never left the performing repertoire. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is another classic, but it needed to be revived a century later by Mendelssohn: Messiah never needed reviving at all by anyone: it was never in danger of dying.
As performances of a contemporary classic go, casual concert-goers and avid classical music fans could do far worse than Tafelmusik’s version of the oratorio, as last night’s performance showed us. For starters, the group plays in Koerner Hall, which has a clear acoustic advantage over Roy Thomson Hall. While only about 20 players on stage (we’ll get to the soloists and chorus in a bit), the little group has no trouble filling the space. If you’re a believer in historical authenticity and think you can hear a live group playing the piece exactly as Handel wanted it to be heard, Tafelmusik has you covered there too — they have exactly the right hardware for the job, including gut strings, harpsichord, baroque trumpets, and historically correct kettle drums. You can even see a performance with conductor Ivars Taurins in traditional early music cosplay and sing along with the choruses if you so choose, although you’ll have to wait for the December 17 show at Massey Hall for that one.
It’s also fun to hear Tafelmusik’s interpretation of Handel’s best-known piece. The band clearly has no problem playing any of it, as one would expect if they’ve played it every year for the past 25 years, but if last night’s performance was any indication, they can still bring all the emotional highs and lows that the two and a half hour oratorio demands. The soloists delivered the arias with operatic verve, particularly soprano Joanne Lunn’s tear-jerking performance of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and bassist Brett Polegato’s gladiatorial rendition of “The trumpet shall sound.” (Polegato won.)
The real star of Tafelmusik’s Messiah, though, was the chorus. One can only speculate whether the most successful opera seria composer of all time viewed writing for choir as a refreshing creative challenge, or resented it as a market-driven necessity, but the Tafelmusik choir showed the composer’s ingenuity throughout the evening, with precise and engaging versions of “For unto us,” “And the Glory,” and yes, the “Hallelujah” chorus. Tradition, especially holiday tradition, is a fine thing; it’s a finer thing still to make tradition this enjoyable.