Review by David Richards
Toronto ON December 3rd 2016
ELMER ISELER SINGERS and AMADEUS CHOIR relive an English choral tradition with dramatic flare in Handel’s Messiah
Elmer Iseler Singers and Amadeus Choir; Photo credit: Nicole Brumley
Soloists Peter McGillivray, Zach Finkelstein, Andrea Ludwig and Allison Angelo;
Photo credit: Nicole Brumley
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This is the season when one can almost turn left at any intersection in Canada and end up in a concert hall or church performing Handel’s beloved oratorio, Messiah. Over the course of the month, there will be large symphonic, historically informed, church and community choir performances throughout the country.
Last night at the Metropolitan United Church in Toronto, we heard the first of perhaps a dozen in our city alone. Artistic Director and Conductor Lydia Adams led the Elmer Iseler Singers, the Amadeus Choir, a baroque-size orchestra, and four magnificent soloists in what may be the most authentically English version that we will hear this month.
The gothic church setting with its stone, high arched pillars ornately carved chancel and wooden ceiling provided an English cathedral-like atmosphere in which to experience a work that has defined English choral music since its first performance in 1742.
Lydia Adams, received her choral training in part at the Royal College of Music, London England in the company of such iconic English musicians as Herbert Howells and Dr. Watkins Shaw. Watkins Shaw was indeed the editor of the edition of the score used in last night’s performance. Adams has been performing the work regularly with her choirs for the past thirty years and is intimately conversant with every detail. Earlier this week, Adams said, ”For myself, from a technical standpoint, I keep finding new things in the score…you keep finding the core of the music, and of course, the core of the music reveals itself to you; it’s right there in front of you. But for me the evolution of the piece comes with getting to know it as completely as you can.” Adams added that having been feeling familiar with it since childhood, it evolves and she comes to it, fresh again with each performance.
Handel’s sense of drama was foremost in last night’s concert. Handel began writing oratorios when his operas went out of favour with the theatre audiences. Last night’s performance was indeed operatic. Had it been an opera instead of an oratorio, the audience would have been cheering the many arias and choruses. The glaring contrasts between ominous fear and triumphant euphoria were front and centre throughout.
Each of the soloists embodied the drama. Tenor Zach Finkelstein displayed warmth and reassurance in “Comfort ye, my people” His clear head-voice was full of hope and anticipation. His aria “Behold and see...” displayed unbounded sorrow and grief. Bass-baritone Peter McGillivray, was like a thunderbolt from the heavens as he trumpeted the words of the old testament God with dramatic vocal authority. One could almost feel the shaking of “the earth, the sea and the dry land”. The aria “The people that walked in darkness…” displayed his wonderfully expressive singing throughout his wide vocal range. Mezzo soprano Andrea Ludwig’s delivery was full of pathos that turned to bitterness and anger in the aria “He was despised.” Her voice found all the emotion of the words without losing any of its captivating tonal beauty. I particularly enjoyed soprano Allison Angelo who made the aria “Rejoice greatly…” virtually dance with joy! Her florid lines were breathtakingly beautiful. She expressed unbridled joy in “I know that my Redeemer liveth…”.
The combined choir of about eighty singers, had the largest single role in this oratorio. It did not disappoint. There was a joyful spirit from its opening chorus “And the glory of the Lord…”. The choir displayed crisp rhythmic singing in the counterpoint of “And he shall purify…” and a fanfare of exclamation in “Glory to God…”. The choir turned into an operatic mob scene with indignation followed by joy, and later despair in the sequence of choruses in Part Two. Predictably, the audience anticipated the ultimate expression of Handelian exultation in the Hallelujah Chorus; the choir delivered. With the full force of the orchestra’s timpani, trumpets and magnificent organ, sound filled the rafters. Organist Patricia Wright pulled out all of the thirty-two foot stops and trumpeters Robert Venables and Robert DiVito added to the brilliance. The four soloists joined in on the Hallelujah and Amen choruses to put an exclamation mark on the joyous celebration that this performance was.
The Elmer Iseler Singers and the Amadeus Choir can next be heard with The Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stéphane Denѐve in a performance of Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, Op. 48 on Wednesday and Thursday February 1st and 2nd 2017 at Roy Thomson Hall.