Two contrasting yet complementary visions of the Handel Masterpiece enrich the Holiday Season
~ Joseph So
For Toronto classical music lovers, December is Messiah month. Given this is English Canada, the Handel masterpiece dominates the Holiday programming landscape, with a few other pieces (notably the Berlioz L'Enfance du Christ and Bach's Christmas Oratorio) sprinkled in between. When it comes to Messiah, for years the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was the main game in town, with its large orchestra playing on modern instruments, big-name soloists with volume to spare, and the terrific choral forces of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. When Tafelmusik presented its first Messiah 35 years ago with a baroque chamber orchestra on period instruments and reduced choral forces, it caught on immediately with those audience members yearning for a more intimate experience. Of course there are others which I've attended - and very much enjoyed - over the years, but for me, the TSO and Tafelmusik are the standards by which all other Messiahs are compared.
But now we have a third, a very interesting take, on this work. Against the Grain Theatre, under the direction of Joel Ivany, is just like its name suggests - an adventurous, iconoclastic, cutting edge company noted for re-imagining old standard repertoire. I've seen many shows from them the last few years, from Boheme to Marriage of Figaro to Uncle John (aka Don Giovanni). What they do is provocative and never dull - I wouldn't say everything works 100%, but when it does, it can really hit the bullseye. AtG presented this very same Messiah two years ago. I attended the opening in the middle of a snowstorm, which was almost as memorable as the performance itself. Now it's been remounted at the more convenient Harbourfront Centre, with additional movement sequences by Jennifer Nichols. How do these shows compare? Or is a comparison even possible?