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How Was Your Messiah?

Back in November I encouraged you to Enjoy Messiah This Christmas and I know that quite a lot of you did—you took in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. I’d love to hear about your experience. Where did you go and what was it like? Give me a brief report!

Let me tell you about the performance I saw last night with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

First off, it was great to bump into several friends there. And it was interesting that for the second year in a row I bumped into a reader of this site in the bathroom at Roy Thompson Hall; that’s two times he and I have crossed paths, and in both cases it’s been in the bathrooms of Roy Thompson. Small world, I guess (and sorry—I didn’t catch your name!).

Messiah is an annual tradition for me, so I’ve seen quite a few performances of it. This year’s was entirely unique and utterly amazing. The conductor ws Andrew Davis—that’s Maestro Sir Andrew Davis to you. But he not only conducted Messiah; he also re-orchestrated it. This was a major 10-month project for him. His aim was “to keep Handel’s notes, harmonies, and style intact, but to make use of all the colours available from the modern symphony orchestra to underline the mood and meaning of the individual movements.”

This led to quite a few unexpected instruments being used: marimba, darabuka, bells and even tambourine (yes, tambourine). While the piece’s words and flow were unchanged, there were significant changes to the orchestration throughout. The performance kicked off with the Overture, as it always does, but it was led not by strings but by the woodwinds. So from the first notes I knew this was going to be very, very different. And, indeed, it was. But Davis made it work. Many of his changes to the orchestration were meant to illuminate the meaning of the different movements and in this he succeeded very well, whether it was in adding to the irony of the lighthearted feel of “All we like sheep have gone astray” (by which Handel meant to show how flippant we can be about our sin) or in coming up with a kind of echo effect for “The trumpet shall sound” which was meant to show that the trumpet is sounding far and wide. I found that I understood Messiah much more this year than I ever have in the past.

His explanatory notes in the program were very, very helpful. Here’s an example from immediately before the “Unto us a Child is born” chorus:

The orchestration for the chorus ‘For unto us a Child is born’ is robust, but when, towards the end, the militaristic tenor drum threatens to take over, the rest of the orchestra, embarrassed, fades away, leaving us with the thought that perhaps the most important of the Messiah’s names is ‘Prince of Peace.’

If there was anything about the performance that disappointed me even a little it would have been the “Hallelujah Chorus” where some of his changes seemed just a little bit heavy-handed (mostly related to bells ringing at otherwise quiet moments). Of course I feel ridiculous even taking issue with something done by Sir Andrew Davis whose knowledge of music is infinitely greater than mine, but I suppose I’m still entitled to my opinion. I also felt that the alto soloist was just a little bit weak compared to the other soloists, though the fact that she was on the far side of the stage from me must have contributed to that. And finally, the seats we had didn’t give us the vantage point I would have liked; we were very close to the stage and couldn’t see back to the percussion, brass or woodwinds. But that’s just because we didn’t want to spend the money to get better seats.

Nevertheless, it was an amazing performance and easily my favorite of all-time. I am hoping that at some point we will be able to enjoy a recording of Davis’ reorchestration of Messiah. It’s that good!