‘Tis the season to Hallelujah in Toronto and Handel’s Messiah is everywhere. Last night was the first performance of the biggest of them all, the Toronto Symphony and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir at Roy Thomson Hall. Traditionally this is Toronto’s equivalent of John Barbirolli and the Huddersfield Choral Society so I was surprised to see a set up for a rather small orchestra. In fact about thirty instrumentalists were used, playing modern instruments of course, with about 150 choristers. It was something of a sign of things to come as conductor Grant Llewellyn took us through the piece quite briskly and rhythmically with even some ornamentation in the da capo repeats. It’s becoming more common I think for conductors to get something approaching an HIP sound out of a modern orchestra as we’ve seen with Harry Bicket in various opera houses. The orchestra and chorus responded pretty well to the less staid approach with the sopranos sounding particularly spritely and incisive.
My main reason for choosing this Messiah though was the interesting line up of soloists; one international star, two well respected, established Toronto singers and a young man who is generating a lot of buzz. The soprano, Jane Archibald, was perhaps the biggest draw. Unfortunately she was coming off a cold that had kept her out of the dress rehearsal and which was still affecting her particularly in the upper register. She sang accurately and with great feeling but we didn’t get the full Archibald experience. Hopefully her health will improve as the run progresses. The tenor was local art song and oratorio specialist Lawrence Wiliford. The tenor part in Messiah is a bit ungrateful. Most of the good music is packed into the first few minutes but Lance made the made the most of it singing with his trademark sensitivity to the text and crystal clear diction. The mezzo gets a huge chunk of the best solo music with, for me, the highlight of the piece in “He was despised”. Allyson McHardy made the most of it. Her dark velvety tone and heartfelt interpretation were just lovely. And then there was young bass-baritone Philippe Sly. I’ve seen him in recital but this was the first time hearing him with an orchestra. He is a real talent. The voice is rich and chocolatey with power to burn, even in the ungrateful RTH acoustic. He’s also very attentive ti the text and clearly a fine musician though perhaps not quite matching Wiliford’s clarity of diction. His “The trumpet shall sound” could easily put Gabriel out of a job.
So, a thoroughly enjoyable version of the seasonal classic which is well worth a listen both for the conducting approach and the interesting mix of solo talent. There are further performances tonight, Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm.
Photo credits: Malcolm Cook.