Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Mozartian Messiah Is A Unique Experience

Joseph So, Ludwig van Toronto

December is “Messiah Month” in Canada’s largest city. If you are a classical music fan, you’re likely to encounter numerous offerings, in venues big and small, from intimate Baroque ensembles to a full orchestra playing on modern instruments. Whatever your taste — from traditional to experimental — you’re likely to find one you like.

As someone who grew up with this piece, December is not complete without attending several performances, although in recent years, I’ve gotten away from my Messiah-bingeing tendencies and limit myself to one. Given my preference for Messiah with large orchestra and a full sound, the Cecil B. DeMille style if you will, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra fits the bill.

That said, in recent seasons, the TSO Messiah has undergone a downsizing, not in quality to be sure, but in numbers. For example, last year’s version conducted by Johannes Debus had only about 30 or so in the orchestra. Last evening, I counted about 40 and a bit, much more intimate than in the past. The choral forces remain substantial, with the celebrated Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

This year, the TSO Messiah is unusual that it’s a version arranged by Mozart. In the excellent essay found in the program by Margot Rejskind, she outlines the genesis of this Mozartian Messiah. Composed by Handel the Londoner in 1742, it wasn’t performed in Germany until 30 years later, and then only occasionally….

While one could quibble with the musical structure of the Mozartian version, it remains enjoyable, to be sure. Alexander Shelley made an auspicious TSO debut, leading the orchestra in a very crisp reading of the score. He’s a fine conductor, and let’s hope he’ll be back. His fast tempo, together with the cuts in this version, means that the performance only lasted two and a half hours including intermission….

And, one can count on the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir to deliver each and every time. It was at its best in “Surely, He hath borne our griefs,” offering up thrilling tone and impressive power.

Read the full review here.