‘Messiah’ gets a Mozart makeover from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

John Terauds, Toronto Star

Tafelmusik and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra both open their annual runs of “Messiah” on Tuesday. This year’s faceoff comes with an extra twist.

We know exactly what to expect from the three decades of careful craft and polish that conductor Ivars Taurins has applied to his choir and the period-instrument Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. But the TSO is not presenting George Frideric Handel’s original 1741 “Messiah,” but Mozart’s 1789 version.

Not only that, but the TSO’s five performance will be led by Alexander Shelley, the exciting National Arts Centre Orchestra music director, and sung by a dream team of Canadian operatic soloists: soprano Jane Archibald, mezzo Emily D’Angelo, tenor Isaiah Bell and baritone Russell Braun.

As usual, the choral parts will be sung by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

Shelley is eager to work with his soloists. “You could go anywhere in the world with that quartet and feel that it’s wonderful,” he enthuses. “Canada has so much talent it’s ridiculous.”

Despite the fact that we rarely get to hear Mozart’s version of Handel’s “Messiah,” this will be Shelley’s fourth time conducting this score.

He recognizes how the small but significant differences in the music might affect some fans.

“Opinions will be divided on this,” Shelley ventures. “Handel was one of the great geniuses of music. His version needs no change and it needs no bettering. Indeed, that’s not what Mozart was trying to do. The last thing on his mind was to try and make it better.”

The conductor explains how Baroque music was considered old-fashioned even a couple of decades after Handel’s death. Mozart was essentially updating the music.

“I think it’s wrong to think of Mozart as a composer when you listen to his version of ‘Messiah.’ I think what you’re hearing here is Mozart as an interpreter,” Shelley says.

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