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SCRUTINY | The TSO & Dame Jane Glover’s Messiah Is Musical Storytelling At Its Very Best

By Paula Citron on December 18, 2023

Dame Jame Glover leads the TSO and soloists in Handel's Messiah (Photo: Allan Cabral)
Dame Jame Glover leads the TSO and soloists in Handel’s Messiah (Photo: Allan Cabral)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Messiah, composed by George Frideric Handel, text by Charles Jennens, conducted by Dame Jane Glover; Lauren Snouffer, soprano; Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano; Colin Ainsworth, tenor; Joshua Hopkins, baritone; Toronto Mendelssohn Choir; Jean-Sébastien Vallée, Artistic Director. Roy Thomson Hall, to Dec. 23. Tickets available here

I have a theory that you can tell what kind of Messiah you are getting by the first five sections which feature the orchestra (Sinfonia), three of the soloists (tenor, baritone and mezzo-soprano), and the chorus.

What did this beginning tell us about the TSO’s 2023 version of this beloved oratorio? That, in fact, we were in for a richly detailed rendering of the score. Not only that, but a Messiah that was also going to be very emotional storytelling.

The great British conductor Dame Jane Glover, now in her 74th year, led the monumental forces, that included 175 soloists, choristers, and TSO members, in a performance that was as intimate as it was dramatic. She treated the text as if it were a musical play. While some Messiahs are a wall of sound, her emphasis was on meaning and feeling, and because Dame Jane is a baroque specialist, she understands period style, and despite the fact that there were a gazillion music artists on the stage, this performance was akin to an early music concert. In sensibility.

Dame Jame Glover, the TSO and soloists, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir & Jean-Sébastien Vallée in Handel's Messiah (Photo: Allan Cabral)
Dame Jame Glover, the TSO and soloists, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir & Jean-Sébastien Vallée in Handel’s Messiah (Photo: Allan Cabral)

Dynamics were a key. For example, the singers or chorus would begin softly and then the voices would swell in grandeur. Sad or reflective passages would be very slow, almost at a glacial pace, contrasted with the lightning fast speed of the more aggressive text. As well as precision phrasing, Dame Jane also included a great deal of ornamentation for the singers, and always for maximum effect on the words. She would even pause between notes. You could call her Messiah, lilting, as befits baroque music, but with an edge.

Take, for example, the final Amen. The many repeats began softly, reverentially, at an even tempo, then built slowly in power, becoming louder and louder, but rather than speed up, Dame Jane slowed things down, and so we experienced a last great Amen that rang to the rafters in a thrilling grand finale that stirred the heart.

The chorus is at the heart of Messiah, and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir was at the top of its game. I have remarked before how disciplined and even toned they’ve become under their new artistic director, Jean-Sébastien Vallée, and Dame Jane was able to manoeuvre their 130 voices as easily as she did the soloists. Their dynamic, intricately defined phrasing was just as detailed in the many as it was in the one.

Dame Jame Glover leads the TSO, choir and soloists in Handel's Messiah (Photo: Allan Cabral)
Dame Jame Glover leads the TSO, choir and soloists in Handel’s Messiah (Photo: Allan Cabral)

Dame Jane was also blessed with four quite evenly-matched singers, three of whom are Canadian, and all of whom displayed the impressive ornamentation demanded by the conductor.

I have always admired the warm yet vibrant tones of mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo, and she did not disappoint. Tenor Colin Ainsworth, whose mellifluous haute-contre voice fits so naturally into baroque music, could easily make the ridiculously high note demanded in the air “Ev’ry valley”. As well, his diction is always as clear as a bell. Baritone Joshua Hopkins possesses a smoky, seductive voice that can stir as well as caress the ear.

Making her TSO debut is American soprano Lauren Snouffer, whose feathery, bright, clear voice is capable of effortless coloratura runs, yet can portray dramatic shading where necessary. The TSO itself performed superbly under Dame Jane, seeming to relish her careful and detailed treatment of the score. And finally, kudos to Associate Principal Trumpet Steven Woomert, who gave us a spirited “last trumpet”.

All in all, Dame Jane Glover’s Messiah demands that you listen to the words. The concert is musical storytelling at its very best, as well as being a profoundly moving experience.

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Paula Citron
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