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.
It’s the holiday season, the air is crisp (if not downright cold), and music abounds. For Christians, those who come from a Christian tradition, and those who just love music, one of the greatest treasures of the season is the plethora of glorious choral music at this time of the year. Shoppers may be subjected to saccharine “holiday” music in the mall. Those who love choral music can choose from a smorgasbord of delights offered up by all sorts of choirs.
For readers in the Toronto area, the invaluable resource for all musical events is The WholeNote magazine, free of charge on stands in the community or digital on the internet. In addition to its timely articles on the musical scene, it lists all concerts in Toronto, the GTA, and beyond. Toronto tenor and lutenist Benjamin Stein has written a Choral Scene review which focuses on December concerts including those of several children’s choirs, ethnic choirs, the choral music of the masters (apart from Handel), and other significant upcoming choral events. Check these out.
Sing-along opportunities abound. The two Toronto Star Christmas Carol Concerts at St Paul’s Anglican Church on Bloor Street are a tradition for many. These concerts feature the Salvation Army Canadian Staff Band, several community and church choirs under the direction of Dr. Giles Bryant, and ample opportunity to sing favourite Christmas carols accompanied by the choirs, the band, and the magnificent church organ. Some 2600 tickets are available free of charge, but only to those (or their delegates) who line up early in the morning on the appointed day several weeks in advance to pick them up. The concerts are a fundraiser for the Toronto Star Santa Claus Fund and typically raise over $45,000.00 for their Christmas box campaign.
Every year, I attend the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Choir Sing-Along Messiah at Massey Hall the Sunday before Christmas. Over twenty-seven hundred choristers crowd into the Hall, arranging themselves into voice sections as Sopranos, Altos, Tenors and Basses (and the assorted others), filling every seat. Ivars Taurins, dressed in the garb of George Frideric Handel and affecting his accent and mannerisms, leads the orchestra, choir, soloists, and the assembled masses as they work through the highlights of Handel’s oratorio, Messiah. The soloists sing the recitatives and the airs; the rest of us stand to join in the choruses. It is a splendid experience.
My friend, with whom I have always attended this event, sings in several choirs, is an accomplished musician, and has no problem singing the alto part with confidence and gusto. I once sang in a church choir, know little about reading music other than to know when the notes go up and down, and how long they are to be held (sort of… ). To participate in this event, I do my best to keep up, and lip synch a lot. Over the years, I’ve become better at it, thanks largely to my strong singer friend. It is a sublime experience to sing the Hallelujah chorus in such company not once, but twice… as the event always ends with a repeat of the Hallelujah chorus, “to raise the roof.” For those who can’t join this event live, there is a DVD of the Sing-Along Messiah available from Tafelmusik. Originally produced for Bravo, the film is also sometimes seen on local or public television. It’s a great way to mark the season.