Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Makes Handel’s Messiah Shimmer With The TSO

Arthur Kaptainis, ludwig Van Toronto

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents Handel’s greatest hit every December, generally with a new conductor. Our Messiah maestro this year is both familiar and surprising: Johannes Debus. On Monday, the music director of the Canadian Opera Company oversaw a performance in Roy Thomson Hall that was agreeable in particulars but lacking something in drama.

The stars of the show, numbering about 110, were in the loft. Clearly, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir has not lost interest in this annual assignment. “For unto us a Child is born” was exuberant and the stresses of “Let us break their bonds asunder” were spot-on. Sections were perhaps not of exactly equal strength — we all know which letter comes first in SATB — but counterpoint was vigorous and the tone was lucid at all dynamic levels. This great institution seems to be thriving under the interim supervision of David Fallis.

Of course, Debus was in charge. Batonless and therefore busy on the podium, he made his wishes known, mostly at moderate tempos. There was a crisp rendering of “Surely” and a fluid treatment of the ensuing fugue.

It was hardly remarkable that the strings (about 30) of the TSO made a sheer, low-vibrato sound. Almost two decades into the well-informed 21st century, they would have to be drilled in retrograde style to do anything else. Everyone today is “historically informed.” Perhaps the continuo was a little heavy. All the same, I think some baroque jobs are best entrusted to modern fiddles. The prestissimo “Refiner’s fire” section of “Who may abide” was dazzling.

Soloists, all Canadians, were at the front of the Roy Thomson Hall stage, where Debus could not see them. Soprano Claire de Sévigné applied high-flying filigree to the da capo of “Rejoice greatly” and mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy summoned a focused and dignified tone in “He was despised.” Andrew Haji gave a welcome push to his pleasant Italianate tenor in “Thou shalt break them.”

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