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The annual staple yet again proves its worth

Roy Thomson Hall
12/15/2015 -  & December 16, 18, 19, 20, 2015
George Frederic Handel: Messiah, HWV 56 (orchestration A. Davis)
Erin Wall (soprano), Elizabeth DeShong (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), John Relyea (bass-baritone)
The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Noel Edison (artistic director), The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor)

Sir A. Davis (Courtesy of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

Few works are as much performed and discussed as Handel’s Messiah. Like other North American cities, Toronto has an annual Messiah industry, this year joined by an Electric Messiah and a Soulfull Messiah. The great-grandfather of them all is the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s account with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir; it has been both hailed and derided through the decades - and is always well-attended.

Sir Andrew Davis’s first go at Messiah was when he was Music Director of the TSO back in 1986, with Kathleen Battle, Florence Quivar, John Aler and Samuel Ramey. It was recorded and released on EMI in 1987 during a period when the “authentic” approach to Handel, with much smaller forces, was very much on the rise. The big challenge is to devise an approach suitable for a large hall without becoming bloated and “Victorian”. This specific arrangement made its debut here in 2001; this revival was being recorded for release on the Chandos label.

Sir Andrew’s lengthy article (“The Details”) in the TSO program (key) gives his account of the various decisions he made for each section of the work. While there were 64 orchestral players involved, the heavy-duty sections (trombones et al) were used sparingly, such as with the brassy “jolts” giving emphasis in the alto’s “But who may abide”. The marimba is used in a couple of places (such as with “And suddenly there was with the angel”), and the xylophone (as in “All we like sheep”). And what about sleigh bells in the “Hallelujah” chorus? I can just hear horrified reactions to the very mention of marimba, xylophone, and sleigh bells (also trombones), but none of these comes across as kitschy or overbearing. The result is an intriguing array of little discoveries.

Discussion with friends brought forth disagreement with some of Davis’s decisions. I found the organ accompaniment intrusive at times (and at one point it seemed out of tune). On the other hand, I liked the clarinet introduction to “I know that my redeemer liveth” (especially when played so beguilingly by Yao Guang Zhai, the orchestra’s associate principal), but others found it intrusive. Overall, though, the large orchestra (and even larger chorus, with 130 singers) was both nimble and transparent - never ponderous. The colourful accents were like the exotic tastes we find in so many seasonal treats. (They frequently brought to mind various orchestral arrangements of Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge.)

The singers were all in fine voice. Elizabeth De Shong displayed some very opulent low notes fully earning the traditional “alto” (vs “mezzo-soprano”) designation. Local favourite Erin Wall sparkled. While John Relyea might not have Samuel Ramey’s deft way with coloratura, his rich voice encompasses both the commanding and sensitive sides of the role. Making an auspicious local debut was British tenor Andrew Staples. Let's hope he comes back.

As in most performances of Messiah cuts have been made, all in Parts II and III. It would have been nice, for example, to hear Erin Wall and Elizabeth DeShong in “O death where is thy sting?” Perhaps these excisions will appear on the recording. Like the 1987 recording, it is sure to find an enthusiastic audience.

Michael Johnson



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