The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performs Handel’s Messiah this year for the 82nd year. (Photo courtesy of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

A nearly 300-year-old favourite has aged well

  • November 29, 2014

TORONTO - Even after performing Handel’s Messiah with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for almost four decades, Patricia Krueger says the music from this Christmas classic never gets old.

Krueger plays the harpsichord and portative organ as part of the continuo, an orchestra subsection that is active throughout the entire performance. After 37 years, she retains her enthusiasm for the George Frederic Handel oratorio and masterpiece, composed in 1741.

“A question that I have been asked on occasion is, ‘Well, you’ve played it for so many years and so many performances, doesn’t it get boring?’ ” Krueger said. “Well, it doesn’t at all for me. Not only do I love the music, revisiting it each year is a treat for me.

“I always remember that out there in the audience, it’s somebody’s first Messiah. And every performance is different. That’s one of the beauties of live music. So it can be new and fresh for everybody, no matter whether they’ve heard or performed it for years.”

TSO’s Messiah is back for its 82nd year with five shows, between Dec. 16 to 21 at Roy Thomson Hall. Its ongoing success is due in part to its lyrical content, the libretto, which focuses on the life of Christ. Yet Messiah is based mostly on the Old Testament from the King James translation of the Bible.

“There are three sections. The first is really the prophecy of the birth of Christ as told by prophets in the Old Testament (and His incarnation). And then in the second part, the death and Resurrection of Christ,” said Krueger. Part three comments on Christ as Saviour.

But what many don’t realize is that Handel originally wrote Messiah for Easter, not Christmas. The first public rehearsal was on April 12, 1742 with the premiere performance the next day.

“It was originally written and performed at Easter because the major message is regarding the Resurrection of Christ,” said Krueger. Yet, its message resonates at Christmas.

“The first part is ‘indeed for unto us a child is born.’ It does have a Christmas message probably because it’s joyful,” she said. “But when it comes right down to it, people of all faiths come and enjoy the Messiah.”

Krueger credits Messiah’s spiritual aspect and its overall quality of music for attracting audiences of many faiths.

“The music itself has obviously endured over the years since it was written,” she said. “I’m sure from an audience point of view they’re there not just for the spiritual, but equally important to them would be the music.”

How the Messiah is actually performed each year can vary based on the conductor and their editing of the piece. TSO’s performance will last about 135 minutes, compared to Handel’s original three-hour concert, said Krueger.

The conductor also influences the size of the orchestra. Handel originally wrote the piece for a small orchestra. But “certainly if you have a large orchestra, it sounds very, very full and, generally with a large orchestra, you would call for a larger choir as well for balance,” said Krueger.

The TSO orchestra will include 40 musicians and the accompanying Mendelssohn choir stands 145 voices strong.
Welsh conductor Grant Llewellyn will direct TSO’s Messiah for the first time. The performance will include an all-Canadian cast of soloists — soprano Jane Archibald, mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy, tenor Lawrence Wiliford and bass baritone Philippe Sly. Sly will be making his debut performance with the TSO.

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