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Toronto Symphony Orchestra Messiah

By Joseph So January 6, 2004

Karina Gauvin, soprano
Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto
Michael Colvin, tenor
Russell Braun, baritone
Toronto Symphony Orchestra & Toronto Mendelssohn Choir,
Noel Edison, conductor

Roy Thomson Hall, December 17th, 2003

Few things in the musical world come around with the regularity of a Christmas time Messiah. This year in the Toronto area alone, one was able to choose between the venerable TSO Messiah, given in the acoustically renovated Roy Thomson Hall, and Les Violons du Roy, under the inspired leadership of Bernard Labadie at Massey Hall, a less ideal venue than the Toronto Centre for the Arts it played in previous years. And let’s not forget the baroque version by Tafelmusik, heard in perhaps the best venue of all — the intimate Trinity St. Paul’s Centre. For those who wanted to give their vocal cords a workout, there was also the ever popular Sing Along Messiah.

Alas, ‘tis also the season for colds, as the audience at RTH was positively consumptive, with tidal waves of coughing the moment there was a break in the music. There were also an inordinate number of latecomers who momentarily disrupted the performance. The conductor and musicians took it all in stride. Interestingly, the TS featured two Quebec singers — soprano Karina Gauvin and contralto Marie Nicole Lemieux, sharing the stage with two local favourites, tenor Michael Colvin and baritone Russell Braun, while Labadie had an all-Anglophone cast.

The TS refrained from the big-scale Messiahs of the past with a pared down orchestra — not quite chamber-sized, but strong enough to provide a full sound to support the 100+ Mendelssohn choir. The score was also heavily cut, lasting only two hour and fifteen minutes including intermission. The stage was tastefully decorated with a couple of Christmas trees, nice red ribbons along the aprons of the choir lofts, but why not a pot of poinsettias in sight? While I’m at it: some garlands would have been nice. The few lonely strands of tinsels hanging forlornly from the ceiling just didn’t cut it.

Never mind — the musical values were high. The Mendelssohn Choir must have sung this work hundreds of times, and it showed, combining fluency and discipline with the mellowest of sound. Much credit goes to Noel Edison, who was doing double duty as both the conductor and choirmaster. Other than a somewhat tentative start when he conducted tensely, his command was never in doubt and overall he led an incisive performance. Curiously, the soloists were seated on the sides, only moving to the center for their solos. Karina Gauvin sang with elegance and serenity, though her soft grained, pure sound was a touch small for the hall. The same could be said of baritone Russell Braun, who made up for whatever the voice lacked in solidity and richness with a heartfelt quality and sincerity of expression. New contralto star Marie-Nicole Lemieux impressed with rich, gleaming tone — her solo "He was despised" was a highlight of the evening. Tenor Michael Colvin made an auspicious TS debut. He has very good diction and the requisite flexibility for the coloratura in "Every valley". He was also the most involved of the soloists, relishing the performance, often singing along with the choir. With such youthful, flexible voices, the audience was given the rare pleasure of hearing all the ornamentations. Despite all the competitions, this Messiah amply demonstrated that there is always room for a mainstream Messiah if it is done as well as this.

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