The Force of Sing Along Messiah

For me, Tafelmusik’s Sing-Along Messiah always marks the start of the Christmas week. Ivars Taurins assumes the accent and attire of the composer, George Frideric Handel. Delegated by God to lead his popular oratorio, “Messiah,” for eternity, Handel presides over the Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chamber Choir, the soloists, and a chorus of 2700 fans who fill Toronto’s historic Massey Hall to the rafters. It is a stirring event.

Sunday was no exception. An hour in advance of the performance, as busker Mr Chao played familiar Christmas music on his soprano saxophone at the corner, choristers met their friends on the sidewalk outside the front door. They then scurried to find choice seats in the sections of the theatre designated for the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.

Once the orchestra, choir and soloists take their places on the stage, Handel, assisted by his cane, hobbles to the podium, bent over by the weight of the ages. This year, for the first half, he was wearing glorious new duds, splendid crimson breeches and overcoat with “lots of bling” and a golden waistcoat. He carried a sword, which he set aside. When he asked the various sections of singers to identify themselves, he gave a variation of his standard warning to the tenors: “Do you see that sea of soprani? Tenors, be brave. Fear is the path to the dark side. If you give the soprano an inch, they will drive you into the ground.” Then to warm up the mass choir, he directed some “Do fa de mi re do” exercises drawn from the opening theme of Star Wars. Don’t let anyone tell you that a Baroque orchestra cannot be contemporary.

Messiah is familiar, and comfortable, and many think “we hear it too much.” But the airs are delightful, especially when sung by superbly sensitive soloists like those we heard on Sunday. The robust choruses resound around the hall when sung by sections full of choristers familiar with the intricacies of the music. I enjoy singing and once sang in a church choir, but my voice is failing and I never did learn to sing the music property. I read my score, but really rely on my friend, Marylyn Perringer, who has accompanied me to this event for years. She has sung in several choirs, knows the alto line well, and sounds wonderful while I lip sync the hard parts. When so large a mass choir responds with impressive discipline to the skilled (and sharp-tongued) direction of George Handel, the result is thrilling.

Although Messiah tells the Christian story, the glorious music attracts people of all religious faiths and those with none at all. This version is an abbreviation of the entire oratorio. The tradition is to sing the highlights of the original score, and then to conclude with a second singing of the Hallelujah Chorus which does truly “raise the roof.” For this final chorus, Handel picked up his golden sword, and, swinging it toward the audience in exultation, it became a lightsaber he used to direct the singing. Great fun. Long may the force of the Sing-Along Messiah continue.

For a taste of the Sing-Along Messiah, check out Tafelmusik on YouTube and the tweets of Sunday’s concert on Twitter.

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