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Toronto theatres offer three unique versions of Handel’s Messiah

Tafelmusik’s once revolutionary Sing-Along Messiah has become a beloved staple of Toronto’s holiday productions.

Gary Beechey

Sir Andrew Davis is perhaps the leading British conductor of his generation. So one might expect that he has made George Frederick Handel's Messiah, perhaps the most famous piece of British music ever composed, something of a party piece, leading it time and time again.

But, as is usual with everything to do with Handel's quixotic and ultimately mysterious oratorio, that is not at all the case. Davis has conducted Messiah exactly three times in his career. And all three occasions were in Toronto. He has never conducted the piece anywhere else. His first performance was in the mid-1980s, which resulted in a famed recording; he conducted it once again in the 1990s; then again in 2010. His fourth time ever will be next week, again with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Except that Davis is not just conducting the Messiah next week. He has rewritten it.

Davis's Messiah will be one of three quite different versions of the perennial favourite presented in Toronto next week, a bit shy of the 20 or so in the New York metropolitan area that the unfortunate junior critic for the New York Times is routinely assigned to review every season, but quite a bouquet nonetheless. The three Messiahs show the extreme versatility and adaptability of this amazing work, which has been pushed and pulled into innumerable, sometimes unrecognizable shapes over its two-and-a-half-century existence, but which manages to escape whole and healthy every time. It will do so again this season. Along with the TSO/Davis Messiah will be Tafelmusik's historically informed version at Koerner Hall, and a staged adaptation presented by the engaging and creative Against the Grain company. Enough Messiahs to warm your heart and pique your curiosity.

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With Davis's rewritten Messiah, and Against the Grain's staged version (a repeat of its enormously successful 2013 performances), it is one of the ironies of art that the revolutionary sound of Tafelmusik's Messiah, so striking and original when it first appeared 35 years ago, has now become a beloved staple of the Toronto Christmas scene. Along with its regular performances, Ivars Taurins's immensely popular, filled-to the rafters, Massey Hall Sing-Along Messiah has become as much a tradition in this city as Clara clutching her beloved nutcracker on the National Ballet stage. For 30-odd years, 2,700 choristers have filled Massey Hall with their infectious enthusiasm and choruses such as For Unto Us A Child is Born, All We Like Sheep and Hallelujah.

But despite his familiarity with Messiah (he has more than 200 performances to match against Davis's three or so), Taurins refuses to fall into any traps when it comes to this towering work.

"No matter how many times I listen to it, or conduct it," he says, "there's always something new for me in this score, something revealed. It's the mystery of this great work."

And by immersing himself and his audience in the sound world of the original, Taurins is able both to connect to the spirit of the work with striking immediacy and to reveal the secrets of Handel's original orchestration, the beating of the angels' wings in the nativity scene, the slow buildup to the glory of the Hallelujah chorus. Taurins always pushes us close to the pulsing heart of this organic masterpiece.

In a way, it has been the success of the kind of historically informed performances of Messiah that Tafelmusik represents that led Davis, for his 2010 performances here, in exasperation, to damn the torpedoes and rescore Handel's work from top to bottom for a modern symphony orchestra. In his hands, the Baroque composer's tiny string band with winds (and occasional trumpets and drums) has been extravagantly enlarged to include a full orchestra's worth of strings, winds and brass, and an array of percussion instruments from marimbas to gongs to sleigh bells (which make their appearance in the Hallelujah chorus) to bass drum, glockenspiel, tambourine, snare drum, antique cymbals, chimes and whatever else his fertile and whimsical imagination could conjure up.

The history of reorchestrating Messiah (which goes back almost to the work's beginnings; Mozart was the first to give it a go) has not always been an honourable, or even a tasteful, one. But even a brief conversation with Davis makes it clear he is proceeding in his project from a deep love and respect for Handel's original. He may have conducted it just a few times, but he has been singing it and loving it since he was a child. He just thinks that perhaps a marimba in For Unto Us A Child Is Born might spice up the proceedings. I missed Davis's 2010 performance of his reorchestrated version – but it received generally positive reviews. This year's performance will be recorded by Chandos – so soon the whole world will hear it.

And then there is Against the Grain's staged Messiah, first presented two years ago. That was a loose, friendly, somewhat informal affair at the Opera House on Queen Street during a horrible snowstorm that nonetheless had a wonderful vibe to it, the biggest production the young company had ever attempted. The ATG Messiah promises to be a bit slicker this year, moved to the Harbourfront Theatre with four performances, but retains the spirit of adventure and enjoyment that characterizes all the work of this company. Artistic collaborators Topher M. and Joel Ivany, more confident today with more success under their belts, have tapped into the unending power of this infinitely generous work to adapt it to their unique needs just as thoroughly as Tafelmusik has recovered its original spirit and the Toronto Symphony is using it to launch its own stratospheric interpretation.

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So on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of next week, my fellow Handel groupies and I might be seen moving slowly, stupefied but happy, from Roy Thomson Hall to Koerner Hall to the Harbourfront Theatre in search of our Messiah fix. We may not sleep outside for a good seat as Justin Bieber's fans did this week on the Danforth, but we will be just as devoted. And when Bieber has been long forgotten, the Hallelujah chorus will still rule.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra's Messiah runs Dec. 15-20 at Roy Thomson Hall (tso.ca); Tafelmusik's Messiah runs Dec. 16-19 at Koerner Hall (tafelmusik.org); and Against the Grain Theatre's Messiah runs Dec. 16-19 (againstthegraintheatre.com).

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