The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra during the choir’s 125th anniversary concert in October at Koerner Hall in the city’s Royal Conservatory of Music. The choir is performing “Messiah” at Roy Thomson Hall Dec. 17-22. John Hryniuk

Hallelujah! Handel's Messiah still has special quality for choristers decades later

By 
  • December 6, 2019

When Susan Worthington gets home from “Messiah” rehearsals with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir she’s hungry and tired, but her brain is still full of music.

“You can’t go to bed right away,” she said. “Rehearsals can be incredibly inspiring. We can work very hard. Working hard is good for you.”

An alto who takes pride in singing the difficult parts that fall between soaring sopranos with the tune and booming basses who lay down the foundation, Worthington has been singing “Messiah” with Toronto’s oldest and biggest concert choir since the 1980s. 

She will be on stage at Roy Thomson Hall once again this Advent season for another performance of the iconic oratorio with Mozart’s orchestration. Performances are scheduled for Dec. 17-18-20-21-22.

“The experience can be different every single year, but it still has the same kernel of inspiration that speaks to our hearts and, for me personally, to my soul,” Worthington said.

Choral singing rewards those who fit in and do their bit. The good chorister is rewarded by being part of something much bigger than themselves.

“If you look on the choir as hard workers, there’s pride in doing the work well,” said baritone Daniel Parkinson, who has been singing Handel’s “Messiah” with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for 45 years.

It’s a piece of music that should amount to much more than just the notes on the page, according to Parkinson.

“Noel Edison (TMC conductor from 1997 to 2018) would say to the choir that it doesn’t matter whether you believe, whether you’re a Christian or not, whether you believe in this,” Parkinson recalled. “But you have to sing this the way it was written. It’s expressing a belief. It’s expressing something of value.”

Everybody knows the big moments in the two-hour choral masterpiece, especially the Alleluia Chorus. For the singers who are intensely wedded to the music every second along the way, the whole thing is emotionally and physically draining.

“At the end of the Amen — the ‘Worthy Is the Lamb’ and the ‘Amen’ chorus — that’s a huge, long thing. It takes a lot of energy,” Parkinson said.

Though the singers take satisfaction from the music, there’s also pleasure in connecting with the audience, Worthington said.

“You can’t make eye contact with everyone, but we often come off the stage and say, ‘Oh, you know we’re done for this year but we didn’t see that family who normally sits over there,’ ” she said. “Families come year after year after year. We’ve watched those children grow up from little ones — seven-, eight-, nine-years-old when they start coming — into being teenagers and sometimes bringing children of their own back… We’ve seen families grow up. We always look for the gentleman in the front row who wears his Santa hat.”

In 45 years Parkinson has seen strange things happen during performances. One year somebody shouting down from the balcony ground a performance to a halt. He’s seen orchestra members faint and choristers fall off the risers.

“I’m still getting a thrill out of this,” said the retired University of Toronto administrator.

Singing with the Toronto Symphony and a different cast of soloists every year keeps things exciting for Worthington.

“I’m always excited to see who the soloists are and usually take a minute to look up their bios if I don’t know them,” said Worthington, whose day job is production and theatre operations manager with Canada’s National Ballet School. “That’s always a thrill, when you see someone who is doing their first “Messiah” with the Toronto Symphony — very exciting.”

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