Messiah: From Concert Hall to the Street

On a holiday season that has quickly shifted from joy to wariness, I have turned to Handel’s Messiah for consolation. Last year I wrote about some of Handel’s techniques (vivid imagery, contrasts, repetition) and motifs (sheep and lambs, corruption, the king). This year I listened to two contrasting versions.

The Original Original Instruments Messiah

In 1966, Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra recorded the first original instruments Messiah. The notes to the Phillips recording declare that “the idea here has been to get away from the nineteenth-century conception of Messiah, with its massed choruses and huge orchestras decked out with instruments Handel did not use. To this end the orchestra on this recording consists of 31 strings, two oboes, two bassoons, two trumpets, timpani, Baroque chamber organ, and harpsicord. The chorus has 40 voices.”

I have the recording, purchased in the Seventies, but I no longer have a record-player. Instead, I bought the CD that reissued the performance in the Nineties. It moves along at a crisp pace and the soloists (bass John Shirley Quirk, soprano Heather Harper, contralto Helen Watts, tenor John Wakefield) are all superb. Davis and the soloists have all passed on so listening to their Messiah honours their memory. And it also reminds me of current day original instruments versions such as Tafelmusik’s.

 A Messiah of the Moment

Last year Toronto’s Against the Grain (AtG) Theater Company released Messiah/Complex, a visual presentation of 20 parts of the Messiah, using a racially, ethnically, linguistically, and geographically diverse group of Canadian singers and choruses. It is available on YouTube until January 9, 2022. Though it is free of charge, the audience is encouraged to donate to AtG, which I did. The cost of filming in numerous locations, some very remote, as well as recording meant that the presentation encompasses only 20 of Messiah’s 51 parts and runs for 1 hour, 18 minutes, rather than the usual 2 to 3 hours. I wish they had been able to do more, and hope that someday they will.

AtG’s website includes the artist’s stories of their life experiences and how they led to their interpretations of Handel’s music and the biblical texts. These include translations into other languages (French, Arabic, Dene, Innuktitut, Southern Tutchone) and back into English, often with shifts in meaning. The artist’s stories are well-worth exploring in addition to listening to Messiah/Complex.

Here are three artists whose work I found particularly engaging:

  • Soprano Catherine Daniel dramatically singing “Why do the Nations so Furiously Rage Together?” normally an aria for bass, in Toronto’s Graffiti Alley, a locale evocative of urban conflict.
  • Soprano Andrea Lett singing “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion,” with the visuals showing her daughter joyously walking in a snowy forest in Bird’s Hill Provincial Park in Manitoba.
  • Diyet van Lieshout, a singer-songwriter from the Kluane First Nation in the Yukon, proudly singing “O Thou that Tellest Good Tidings to Zion” in Southern Tutchone, walking in the snow with the Kluane Mountain Range in the background. Translated back into English, her words are “Share the good news from the top of the highest mountain … the Creator has made all of this land for us.”

On this necessarily muted holiday season, the Colin Davis original instruments Messiah gave me comfort and familiarity, and the AtG brought me visual and mental stimulation. Both have added meaning, light, and warmth to the holiday, and I strongly recommend them.

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