The sixth iteration of Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah unsurprisingly morphed from a live show in the intimate setting of the Drake Underground to a streamed video recorded on location in various places in Toronto. There is much that was the same as previously and some interesting differences. The selection of arias and choruses is very similar to previous years starting with “Comfort Ye”; arranged for all four singers and finishing up with “Hallelujah”.
This time all four singers are essentially classically trained opera singers and there was not a lot of use of languages other than English. As is traditional by now, each singer gets to offer their own interpretation/reworking of an aria. So we got Jonathan MacArthur and dancer Lybido on the water at Ontario Place with a sort of disco version of “Ev’ry Valley”. I think it would be a strong contender for Eurovision. Lindsay McIntyre’s version of “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” was accompanied by Wesley Shen on the shō; a kind of Japanese harmonica with a really delicate sound that contrasted eerily with the filming on a wet and windy Scarborough lakeshore.
Teiya Kasahara’s version of “He was despised” was filmed in a graveyard against a sonic background of tape loops of Teiya singing it in Japanese. This was haunting stuff. Andrew Adridge’s “The People That Walked in Darkness” was filmed by a camp fire and morphs from a sung version to spoken text evoking Black Lives Matter and asking us what we mean by “Darkness” and “Light”. It’s powerful and disturbing.
There’s also one really big change from previous years. There’s a piece composed for the occasion by Ian Cusson; O Death, O Grave. It’s performed by Teiya and Andrew at (I think) the waterworks at the east end of the Beach. It’s an intriguing piece. It’s musically intrinsically interesting but it’s the treatment of the text that fascinated me. To Charles Jennens; confident Evangelical, “O Death where is they victory?” is a purely rhetorical question and Handel runs with that. Cusson’s music asks us to look at the question again. There’s no certainty here and I think each person will have to confront this music, as they do the question itself, in the context of their own belief system. The best reworked Messiahs do this and force us to look at the text afresh. This piece surely does that.
There’s plenty more fairly “aggressive” reworking of well known numbers for electronics and turntables as well as singers and Lybido. Lindsay McIntyre produces a lovely (and fairly conventional) “How Beautiful Are The Feet” in the park behind the AGO around the Henry Moore sculpture but arrangements of “Behold the Lamb of God” and, especially, “All We Like Sheep” are more “out there”.
The show was directed by Rob Kempson with music arranged (with much skill and imagination) and directed by Adam Scime. SlowPitchSound provides the turntable effects, Wesley Shen doubles up on shō and harpsichord, Joel Visentin handles the electronic keyboards and Joel Schwartz the electric guitar. The technical quality is excellent and the “live” version streamed fine except for a few seconds early on. It’s on Youtube but you won’t find it on the Soundstreams channel. You need to go to soundstreams.ca and register (free) to get the link.
Definitely a good way to spend an hour though this year you will have to create your own cocktail.