Toronto Symphony Orchestra
At Roy Thomson Hall
In Toronto on Wednesday
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra
At Koerner Hall
In Toronto on Thursday
Messiah endures. At a time when it's desperate to stave off marginalized status, Messiah is about the closest the classical world gets to mainstream culture these days. The Hallelujah Chorus is right up there with White Christmas and The Christmas Song as a holiday classic. Everyone knows Messiah. Between the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Tafelmusik, there are 10 sold-out performances of the oratorio this month in the city. Messiah endures.
With its revered status comes both the respect due to a classic, as well as some surprising departures from its original state. Over the centuries, Messiah has been presented in intimate surroundings, in gargantuan open-air venues, in theatres, in churches, sometimes by 40 players, sometimes 400, sometimes 4,000. So the two Messiahs currently on display in Toronto represent not just two different approaches to the work, but two differing sets of musical and aesthetic values, two different ways of thinking about the power of art.
The Toronto Symphony's Messiah is the stadium rock version of the Handel masterpiece. Nearly 130 Mendelssohn Choir choristers fill the stage, along with a medium-sized orchestra, and the architecture of Roy Thomson Hall places musicians and audiences far distant from one another. The only thing missing are giant video screens. And, given the size of the forces at his disposal, guest conductor Grant Llewellyn perched his Messiah on the precipice of the grand gesture, the sweeping choral melody, the powerful sonic experience. And when it worked, it worked. A powerful Hallelujah Chorus ended Part 2 of the oratorio; the final Amen was spine-tingling. And the soloists Llewellyn chose were equally dramatic, when they were on their game. Bass-baritone Philippe Sly shook us just as intended with his "I will shake the Heavens and Earth" aria. Lawrence Wiliford had a smooth, light tenor voice, and soprano Jane Archibald, nursing a cold, still managed to soar with her Part 2 and 3 arias. But it was Allyson McHardy's "He was despised" that was the hit of the evening, dark and dramatic, the best of what the TSO version had to offer.
But when the big effect is your game plan, things can go missing. The special filigree of Handel's choruses gets lost when 125 people are singing them – and Llewellyn took especially quick tempi for his Mendelssohn Choir choristers to keep up with, not always with success. Choir and orchestra were not always together. The big effects were there – some of the smaller ones, by necessity, were absent.
It was a different Messiah that Tafelmusik presented at Koerner Hall. The smaller Tafelmusik orchestra provided the accompaniment, a chorus a full 100 members smaller than the Mendelssohn Choir did the singing, all featured in an intimate venue where performers are in close proximity to audience members, and acoustics are pin-sharp. Yet the effect was as dramatic as the opulent Toronto Symphony version, and several times more immediate and visceral. Ivars Taurins has conducted Messiah hundreds of times, so he can pull out of the score every nuance, every accent, every Handelian gesture, every moment of drama and beauty hidden within. Which he did for this Messiah. Taurins makes you forget you've ever heard this piece before, so complete is his commitment and dedication to the score. And although the soloists are so important to the success of any Messiah, and Taurins had brilliant soloists, he makes us remember that it is the choruses of Messiah, from "And the Glory of the Lord" to "And he shall purify" to "All we like sheep," that are the heart of this work. And I'm prepared to nominate the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir for a group Order of Canada after their work on this Messiah. They are a consummate and perfectly balanced ensemble, so complete in their execution, whose joy and beauty in performance often brought me and my companion (although she was a bit more discreet) to tears.
And the Tafelmusik soloists were brilliant as well. Bass-baritone Brett Polegato gave the most rousing performance of "The Trumpet Shall Sound" that I've ever heard. Lydia Teuscher's brilliant and beautiful soprano provided warmth and clarity to everything she sang. James Laing made a powerful countertenor, and Colin Balzer anchored the evening with his solid performances. It almost goes without saying that the Tafelmusik orchestra was brilliant and full of energy.
Two different Messiahs, both with their strengths, but representing two different approaches to this classic masterpiece. But that's one of the things that goes with being part of the mainstream – you relinquish control over your work, and allow it to enter other people's imaginative embrace. This, in effect, is what has happened to George Frederick Handel and his oratorio. And through it all, his Messiah endures.