Media Reviews

Messiah makeover is a lark

Arthur Kaptainis
The Ambersand
National Post, December 17, 2010

Thursday marked the premiere, in Roy Thomson Hall, of Handel’s Messiah as orchestrated by Sir Andrew Davis. Either that or a heretofore undiscovered 18th-century edition of Babes in Toyland. Whatever it was, it made for an entertaining evening. Even if you say solemn prayers daily at the altar of authenticity, you need to hear one of the repeat performances (the last is Tuesday).

The commission, from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, was for a big, colourful take on the great oratorio, which Davis, TSO conductor laureate, fulfilled with maximum zest. Sleigh bells in the Hallelujah Chorus? These created one of the more subtle effects. We heard tapping drums, noodling marimba, strumming harp, snarling trombones, cooing woodwinds, stalwart brass. The nearly-forgotten RTH organ was released from captivity, and most proudly did it comport itself.

Cymbals and other adornments naturally accompanied the burst of “Wonderful, Counsellor” in For Unto us a Child is Born. The comic height of the night was All We Like Sheep, peppered with bleating effects that had the crowd chuckling. Yet there were dignified interludes, notably I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, treated as a tender chamber piece, with clarinet and string quartet.

It is natural to notice the bold departures and overlook the numbers that Davis amplified in more moderate ways. Often we could simply enjoy the expanded string section, for once not asked to squeak their way meekly through the music but permitted to play it for all it is worth.

Even more impressive was the 150-strong Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, sounding like one of the great choruses of the world as prepared by Noel Edison. Rarely have I heard words emerge so clearly from so many, with such robust and resplendent tone.

Soloist were individual and expressive. Soprano Andriana Chuchman brought a brilliant sound to her arias and mezzo Jill Grove rendered the words with high definition. Tenor Toby Spence sang with precision and urgency. John Relyea summoned a dark sonority in Why Do The Nations, even if the rapid triplets were less than sharply articulated.

To all these pleasures we cold add Davis’s heartily Elgarian approach to phrasing, with pronounced ritards and (in spots) single-dotting replacing the clipped rhythms of the authenticrats. This Messiah is, in many ways, an expression of Sir Andrew’s distinctly English sense of humour, but also his love of the oratorio in all its expressive depth.

Will we hear it again? Surely only under this conductor. But Davis has reminded us of how rich Messiah is, and how handsomely it accommodates the symphonic embrace that it has been denied for decades.

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