TAFELMUSIK'S marvelous Messiah!

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir; Photo credit: Sian Richards

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Review by Jeff Mitchell
Toronto ON December 16th 2016

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Last night, the renowned Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir thrilled a wildly appreciative audience with its annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah at Koerner Hall. It is for a performance like this that Torontonians are blessed to have a venue like Koerner Hall. Those who braved winter’s latest blast were treated to ensemble playing and singing at its finest, in a setting that allowed each note to resonate and each word to be heard with clarity. I have to think that the musicians themselves would revel in such an unparalleled acoustic. Under the exuberant direction of Ivars Taurins, the musicianship and passion of both orchestra and choir were supremely evident for the entirety of the nearly three-hour long performance.

The soloists for this performance, three of whom are Canadian, were equally stunning, handling all of the challenging lines with apparent ease and capturing the spirit and emotion of each air with amazing vocal control and facial expression. Soprano Amanda Forsythe, Mezzo-Soprano Krisztina Szabo, Tenor Colin Balzer and Baritone Tyler Duncan all have a deep understanding and sensitivity for the nuances of early music, and they complemented one another in their free and yet remarkably precise renderings of their respective airs and duets. In particular, Ms. Szabo sang “But who may abide the day of his coming … For he is like a refiner’s fire”, with such intensity that it seemed like her very eyes might burst into flame. And in the opening air of Part 2, she delivered the line “He was despised and rejected of men … He hid not his face from shame and spitting” with all of the disgust and indignation that she could muster. Tenor Balzer was equally powerful in his delivery of “But thou didst not leave his soul in hell”, and Baritone Duncan gave a richly sonorous performance of “The trumpet will sound…” air, accompanied by the brilliant trumpet playing of Josh Cohen. The star of the evening, however, was without a doubt the American soprano Amanda Forsythe. Her voice is truly ethereal and heavenly to hear. When she sang “Rejoice greatly…”, she appeared to be rejoicing herself in the music, and we as listeners rejoiced along with her hearing such incredible vocal purity and dexterity. She was equally spectacular in the final air that begins “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Despite possessing a lovely vibrato, she knew exactly when straight tone suited the text and music better, and the contrasts were stunning to hear. Forsythe has released a cd collection of arias from Handel operas, called The Power of Love, and one hopes that it will do well, because - in the words of my daughter, who is a professional soprano herself - Forsythe is “scary good”.

Of course, the chorus itself was also ‘scary good’, consisting of many vocalists who are gifted soloists in their own right. Yet, it is a testament to their musicianship and sensitivity to the demands of ensemble singing that no one voice ever stood out. Their rendering of “For unto us a child is born” was lively and joyous, and it showed in the faces of each singer. The same could be said of the orchestra, superbly led by violinist Christopher Verrette, which played with all of the elegance and beauty that one has come to expect of this group. The overall sound was velvety but crisp and pure. To be sure, the conducting of Mr. Taurins had much to do with this, and those familiar with him will know that he conducts like he was dancing a ballet, with unique arm and hand movements and a full-body approach that teases out and helps to shape every note from both orchestra and choir. When he calls for a different shading here or a subtle dynamic shift there, sound magically happens. As well, his consistently up-tempo interpretation made for a greater level of intensity, and though he often pushed tempi to the limits, the skill of the musicians at his disposal never made it sound rushed. It’s hard to believe that Handel would have imagined his grand work performed any other way.

Finally, hats off to Tafelmusik for the excellent programme provided to their patrons. It was slightly oversized, allowing for Charles Jennen’s libretto to be easily readable. It included well-written information about the organization, a wonderful welcome by one of the choristers, great soloist bios and Q&A’s complete with each of them, along with an excellent Messiah 101 summary that provided background not only about the music, but also the approach to performing the work on period instruments in the style in which it was written. With the house lights set low, the readability of the programme made the entire concert experience that much more enjoyable. The audience’s enthusiastic participation in the Hallelujah Chorus, and the standing ovation following the majestic closing Amen were testaments to the efforts of all involved in making this wonderful concert happen.

For more information about Tafelmusik, please visit their website at www.tafelmusik.org. For upcoming events at Koerner Hall, check the Royal Conservatory of Music’s website at www.performance.rcmusic.ca.