Review: Messiah with the Grand Philharmonic Choir

An edited version appears in today’s Kitchener-Waterloo Record.

Practically every choral society, no matter how meagre their resources, mounts an annual production of Messiah, by leaps and bounds Handel’s most famous work. There is something quite satisfying about participating in an event, knowing the same performance is being given in communities all across the world. It’s a communal ritual akin to attending church on Sunday morning or watching Hockey Night In Canada. In Britain, Messiah is still regularly performed at Easter time, a logical choice, since over two thirds of the material deals with the Passion story. In Canada, however, the piece seems to have more firmly appended itself to the Christmas season.

At the Centre In The Square Saturday evening, the Grand Philharmonic Choir made its contribution to Messiah 2007. Their sound was lovely and light, with Music Director Howard Dyck wisely choosing to use a smaller chamber choir for some of the more delicate passages. Diction was, on the whole, clear and the ensemble displayed excellent rhythmic unity. The one aberration was Dyck’s rather curious tempo choices. For the most part, it seemed that his baton only had two speeds: comatose or manic, the result of which was a rather stilted overall feel.

Soloists for the performance were Shannon Mercer, Matthew White, Antonio Figueroa, James Westman. Mercer and White were well acquainted with period stylistic details and improvised imaginative and tasteful ornaments. Westman’s voice was rich and even throughout his range but often overloud to the point of being startling, a quality perfect for the opera stage but less successful in Baroque oratorio. Antonio Figueroa was the most inexperienced of the quartet and was, on this occasion, overshadowed by his colleagues. His habit of singing slightly under the pitch unless he was vibrating was distracting and ultimately disappointing.

The oratorio text was lifted straight from the King James Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer but religious text does not necessarily a religious work make. This piece was never intended to be part of the liturgy. Handel loved to show off and Messiah is far less about the life of Christ than it is about how great Handel is. The piece was written to raise money for charity and vocal fireworks most certainly would loosen purse strings more readily than staid religious devotion. Ostentatious is an adjective Handel would have taken as a compliment and as such, it would have been interesting to hear what Mercer and White could do without being censured by propriety and good taste.

There’s no getting around it; Messiah is long, doesn’t divide evenly into two sections and loses desperately needed momentum in the second of the three parts. The twenty items in the second part take over an hour to perform, the majority of which are of very little value musically. Many conductors, deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, choose to make significant cuts in this section to keep things moving along. Dyck, perhaps aiming instead at completeness, did not and the performance suffered for it.

Saturday’s performance checked all the right boxes but in the end it turned out to be a rather dull affair, largely due to the deep dark secret that lurks beneath Messiah’s thick, gooey coating of universal belovedness. Namely, Messiah is far more fun to sing than it is to listen to.

If the lusty singing engaged in by audience members during the Hallelujah Chorus is any indication, it is time to start a new Christmas tradition in Kitchener-Waterloo. A sing-a-long! If you thought Messiah was good with 110 singers, imagine it with the Centre In The Square packed to the gills with choristers. The annual Tafelmusik Sing-A-Long Messiah in Toronto (23rd December, Massey Hall) is always a grand time and would translate well into KW. Now all we need is someone to organize it. Any volunteers?

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