I enter the Drake Underground with some friends. We’re here for Electric Messiah, and none of us have any idea what is in store for us. The room is lit red, chairs askew with a few centered in the room. The instrumentalists are around the perimeter of the space facing inwards. The buzz isn’t just from the Cab-Merlot I’m sipping: there’s a hum from a track playing on the speakers and an energy in the room. All the performers are wandering around the space talking to people. There are about 50 people altogether, the space full but not cramped.
The performance begins with the turning on of a lightbulb. Nature sounds, live scratching, a funk organ and guitar come together to start off the adventure. Jeremy Dutcher begins with Comfort Ye. It is loud and aggressive, and is literally in your face. The abrasiveness of the performance and the power of his voice demands attention. Shortly, the rest of the vocalists join in one by one, in various languages. Gabriel Dharmoo, a Quebecer, stands out; his raga-inspired, French-improv chant is evocative.
You’ll have to forgive me, I don’t usually pay attention to the words that soloists sing in Handel’s Messiah. I have an inkling of what the emotion is and some of the words pop through, but in Roy Thomson Hall, the choir cannot hear very much from soloists facing the audience. This performance gave me a chance to experience the solos in a way I am not normally able to.
Jeremy Dutcher’s sensual rendition of Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted made me recognize the innuendo of the lyrics. The sexual connotations of making the rough places plain and “exalting” ev’ry valley are indelible in my mind. Much later, Christine Duncan and Gabriel Dharmoo began the songs Why do the nations so furiously rage together and Thou shalt break them. Conventional performance of these two often removes their urgency, their invocation of war and their evocation of terror. Duncan and Dharmoo started the songs but ended up yelling violently at each other. The invocation and evocation were chillingly clear.
Insistency frames this work, gives it its engine, and drives its power. The artistic choices are strong and effective; the work felt urgent and flowing. Pieces felt like a cup under a running faucet, waiting for a moment to overflow before reaching equilibrium. I think of Carla Huhtanen’s interpretation of How Beautiful Are the Feet. Normally performed in G minor, the piece was moved down into a solid mezzo register (C minor?). Half the song was performed at this lower range, which intrigued me, leading me to want more and more. Finally, Huhtanen returned to the written key and finished beautifully.
Effective performances, for me, leave me with a sense of yearning. I believe that a good performance should never give you everything you want. This Messiah left me wanting to explore and know more. The minimalist instrumental accompaniment – organ, guitar and turntables – never felt lacking; the organ inhabited a much-valued presence in the music and paired well with the similarly funk-inspired guitar. The scratching and spinning added a new depth and presence, and contributed to the insistency and urgency of the performance.
Movement artist Lybido provided a dance interpretation of Jesus Christ that was particularly thought-provoking because it could have almost passed unnoticed. Inscrutable and esoteric, moving around the fringes of the room, one had to look for him, to work at seeing him. Point being, in our day and age we wouldn’t recognize Jesus if he were right in front of us. There is a great metaphor in making the actual Messiah peripheral, dancing around the room. In this case, we can only make the connection if we choose to. Recognizing the Messiah isn’t the dancer’s responsibility; it’s ours.
Hearing a work that I know so well, performed in a different way – in snippets, in pieces, with modifications, with edits – kept me engaged and excited. If you are fan of Handel’s Messiah, I recommend that you catch Electric Messiah. Pay attention to the way it makes you feel, and then see your typical Messiah, and pay attention to how that makes you feel. I believe you’ll find yourself enlightened by both, and possibly renewed. There is much to love about Messiah; let it continue.
Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah, based on Handel’s Messiah, is at the Drake Hotel Underground December 5 to 7. For details on the performers and the show, visit https://www.soundstreams.ca/performances/ear-candy/electric-messiah/.
Follow Brian Chang on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.