This article appears in The WholeNote as part of our collaboration in the Emerging Arts Critics programme.

Krisztina Szabó, in the TSO's production of Handel's Messiah on December 18. Photo credit: Jag Gundu/TSO.Growing up as the son of a minister, I learned early on that a religious story like Handel’s Messiah can be told to a faithful audience without emotion or presence from its narrators. With those sacred texts – the proclamation of the coming of Jesus Christ, or the passion of the Christ – the weight is in the words, not in the nuances of how the stories are being told. But for the non-religious, Messiah is an epic story of prophecy, miracles, condemnation and resurrection – and that story requires passion, presence and conviction to be experienced memorably. As an increasingly non-religious society, I believe that these requirements will become increasingly influential in the performance of oratorio.

Following GRAMMY Award nominations for last year’s recording, this year’s Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) Messiah, running December 18 to 23, was brimming with fresh colours and presence, led by story-shaper Matthew Halls conducting the TSO, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and four exceptional Canadian soloists (soprano Karina Gauvin, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, tenor Frédéric Antoun and baritone Joshua Hopkins). An annual tradition for many, Roy Thomson Hall was packed with a vast and loyal audience, many of whom would appreciate any performance of the work simply due to its status as a cultural devotional activity. But if we focus on the future of Messiah and the future audiences of the work – then Messiah requires refreshing.

Luckily, a few of the key players in the TSO’s Messiah understood this. From the top of the piece, guest conductor Matthew Halls established an energetic introduction with the overture, declaring his intention to present a refreshing take on the work and offering noticeably stark contrasts in tempo and colour. This unpredictable pacing continued throughout the night, with some tempos nearly startling, like the entrance before the baritone’s “For Behold.” Halls’ unusually agile tempo here – despite its rushed opening measures – flattered Hopkins’ flexible voice.

New pacing and new colours are exciting alone, but to refresh Messiah also requires presence from its other storytellers – the soloists. Tenor Frédéric Antoun entered with a soothing, calm disposition for his opening aria, “Comfort ye,” his radiant composure evident before he even opened his mouth to sing. The accompagnato built into a well-supported “Ev’ry valley,” with brave ornamentation. Antoun’s voice is well suited to the repertoire; his preference for soft consonants enhanced the lush characteristics of the music.

Not as calming, but equally as refreshing, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó brought fierce presence to her music. Szabó vocalized the text with as much passion as one would with an operatic role, her interpretation rooted in feeling, depth and understanding. Because of her expert command over her instrument, Szabó demonstrated a genuine commitment to the text, inviting listeners to empathize with her burning intensity.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir echoed some of these colourful moments, paying careful attention to Halls’ conducting. Responding to Szabó’s “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,” Halls manipulated the choir through sweeping dynamic shifts and energetic crescendos, the sweet, unified choral sound providing an interesting contrast to Szabó’s dramatic vocals.

Baritone Joshua Hopkins also understood the need to be present with the material. Displaying marvellous animation in Part Three’s “The trumpet shall sound,” Hopkins soared through the coloratura so quickly that it nearly adopted the qualities of a Rossini aria. Hopkins was about as dramatic acting as they come. Before his first entrance, “Thus saith the Lord,” in true baritone fashion, Hopkins purposefully waited until every single person in the hall was quiet and attentive before rising to begin, introducing us to his exquisitely balanced instrument.

A well-balanced instrument will always be a focus of devoted Messiah attendees, and for them, soprano Karina Gauvin delivered an ideal baroque performance. Gauvin was technically sound, vocalizing with well-executed ornaments and a near-flawless navigation through her registers. Her performance was polished and focused, lips quivering from her energetic vibrato – but she stood out from the others in terms of presence.

The devoted Messiah audience will cherish her portrayal. It’s hard to match the dexterity of her voice in the coloratura sections of “Rejoice greatly.” But for the viewer that this review focuses on, the viewer that struggles to connect with this religious, classical mammoth – for this viewer, Gauvin may have come off as a stereotype of the inaccessible, unrelatable opera diva. This viewer would favour Szabó, whose performance may not have been as polished, but who was there, committed to telling a story in the moment.

This is not to say that technique doesn’t matter. Without a solid foundation, it would be impossible to navigate the grandiose singing required for this piece. But to inspire a new generation, Messiah needs something more. A safe Messiah will not endure. The TSO is on the right track, presenting a Messiah packed with ethos and colour. Fill the work with talented singers who are passionate about sharing a story, and add a conductor who isn’t afraid to expand on the expected – and suddenly Messiah becomes an experience that creates memories. That becomes a Messiah that will survive.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented Handel’s Messiah from December 18 to 23, 2017 at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Taylor Long is fairly new to Toronto. Born and raised in Halifax, NS, Taylor studied classical voice at Dalhousie University and writes for BroadwayWorld Toronto and Opera Canada.

This article appears in The WholeNote as part of our collaboration in the Emerging Arts Critics programme.

Matthew Halls, conducting the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and TSO on December 18. Photo credit: Jag Gundu/TSO.Traditions are at the heart of the holiday season and George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is undoubtedly a holiday essential.

Taking the form of an oratorio, Handel’s Messiah features orchestra, choir and four soloists, and in three parts, tells the story of God’s redemption of humankind. Part One focuses on the birth of Jesus, Part Two navigates His death, and Part Three offers a view into Christ as Saviour. Messiah was originally conceived of as a work for Easter but by the Victorian period, it had found a home amongst Christmas celebrations and has remained so ever since.

On the evening of December 18 at Roy Thomson Hall, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) was ready to delight audiences again with its annual production of Handel’s Messiah.

This year, the TSO presented itself as a smaller string orchestra, absent of many of the brass and woodwinds but including a harpsichord – a gesture to the Baroque era to which Messiah belongs. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (TMC), which typically performs under the artistic direction of Noel Edison, sat directly behind the orchestra onstage. When the lights dimmed, guest conductor Matthew Halls entered the stage, followed by the four finely dressed soloists: baritone Joshua Hopkins, tenor Frédéric Antoun, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó and soprano Karina Gauvin.

After a resounding opening overture to Part One by the orchestra, Frédéric Antoun began to beautifully sing the tenor accompagnato “Comfort ye.” He skilfully handled the music’s melismatic passages and gave a thoroughly engaging performance. When the choir rose from their seats and entered with the chorus “And the glory of the Lord,” their full sound marked a distinct departure from the soloist. Seeing the entire choir standing behind the orchestra was stunning – and hearing their rich tone added to this awe.

A shower of applause came down after this segment, and an unusually long silence followed until baritone Joshua Hopkins walked to the centre of the stage and began his accompagnato “Thus saith the Lord.” His deep voice carried effortlessly through the hall – and also carried away any remaining confusion over the empty silence that had preceded.

With the opening notes of the mezzo-soprano air “But who may abide the day of His coming,” Krisztina Szabó quickly established herself as a strong and exquisite performer. She embraced the dramatic element of the performance as much as the vocal technique and musicality, and was captivating to watch and listen to throughout the concert.

The recitative “There were shepherds abiding in the field” introduced soprano Karina Gauvin, who treated each of her notes with poise and made them shimmer despite the high register. Like Szabó, she heeded the drama associated with performance, particularly in Part One’s “Rejoice greatly.” Giving warm smiles throughout her performance, she demonstrated that audience and performers alike could share in the enjoyment of the piece.

When the orchestra offered up the first notes of the Hallelujah chorus at the end of Part Two, a current of excitement rippled through the audience. Adhering to tradition, people began to rise for the chorus.

The practice of standing during the Hallelujah chorus was started in London, when King George II supposedly stood up during that part of the piece. Royal protocol ordained that everyone had to stand when a monarch did, so the rest of the audience followed suit. The enduring custom is equally a learning experience for those uninitiated to a live Messiah performance and a powerful marking of tradition for seasoned attendees.

In Part Three, the instrumentalists of the TSO brought the notion of celebration immediately to mind. The bright and joyous trumpet solo added liveliness and vivacity to Hopkins’ “The trumpet shall sound” – and the buildup of energy and excitement channelled by the timpani kept the audience on the edges of their seats until the final chord rung out into the hall.

Halls’ conducting moved Messiah along with great energy and vibrancy. He conducted the entire work from memory, the music guiding him as much as he guided the performers. And while there were a few moments where the ritardandos between the orchestra and soloists didn’t quite line up, these minor slips simply spoke to the work being a collective human effort, inclusive of imperfections and triumphs alike.

When Halls’ arms came down after the final chord, his hands swiftly came together to applaud the musicians and singers. The audience also didn’t waste any time getting to their feet and offered all the performers ample applause.

Handel’s Messiah is truly a work that demands to be experienced – and under the direction of Halls, the TSO did a spectacular job of bringing the piece to life and fulfilling holiday traditions in which Messiah has found a cherished place.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented Handel’s Messiah from December 18 to 23, 2017 at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Melissa Poon has always considered the arts, music and performance to be essential aspects of her life. She is a classically trained violinist and flutist, an avid regular at the orchestra and theatre, and a wishful world traveller. 

stockThe cover of Berlioz' book, "Evenings with the Orchestra."As we near the “2018” part of our 2017/18 season, we’re excited to present a new project that will continue into the new year: the first pieces of work from this season’s Toronto’s Emerging Arts Critics Programme. 

An initiative started by the National Ballet of Canada and The Dance Current magazine, the Emerging Arts Critics Programme (EAC) offers early-career writers, ages 19-29, a platform to study arts writing in workshops and one-on-one mentorship sessions with local arts publications. In previous years, the programme focussed solely on dance writing – so when they decided this season to expand it to include classical music, we were invited, by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, to come on board.

The participants in the programme spend a year attending performances by both the NBoC and the TSO, and submit reviews of these performances for online publication in The Dance Current and The WholeNote, respectively. Each participant works on their reviews with a mentor and an editor, to explore the process that critical writing undergoes from performance to publication. We also facilitate group workshops to discuss how to approach arts writing, and some of the issues facing arts writers today.

At The Dance Current, the writers are scheduled to work with critic John Coulbourn and TDC founding editor Megan Andrews; on The WholeNote end of things, they’ll work with publisher David Perlman and myself.

This year’s participants are:

Arianna Benincasa
Eve van Eeden
Josette Halpert
Kallee Lins 
Taylor Long
Jaimie Nacken
Melissa Poon
Wei Shen

Reviewed shows include:

The National Ballet of Canada, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
The Winter’s Tale, November 10-19, 2017 
Nijinsky, November 22-26, 2017
Frame By Frame, June 1-10, 2018
Paz de la Jolla & Dark Angels & Cacti, June 16-22, 2018  

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Roy Thomson Hall 
Handel’s Messiah, December 18-23, 2017 
Majestic Mozart, January 10 and 13, 2018 
Holst The Planets, January 25-27, 2018  
Dvořák & Beethoven, February 21 and 22, 2018  

You can find the “dance half” of the EAC work this season here, on The Dance Current’s website. The first two TSO reviews, where we worked with Taylor Long and Melissa Poon on coverage of Handel’s Messiah, will be up online within the next day or two.

Happy 2018, and cheers to new things in the new year!

-Sara Constant

Volume 1, Issue 4 - December 1995 / January 1996Sometimes the way I can tell that things are going well around here is by noticing how small, in the overall scheme of things, the things I am fretting about actually are. Like two days ago when I found myself agonizing about whether it would be more accurate, on the cover, to describe this two-month issue as “combined” or “double.” “Double,” I told myself, is how I think we have usually done it. But with the concert scene being significantly put on hold in the latter part of December, for Festivus or whatever you choose to call it, and the first couple of weeks of January significantly dedicated to recovery, there isn’t double the amount of activity. “Combined” would be more accurate. I went searching for answers in our “rear view mirror” – the complete 23-year flip-through archive of this publication on our website – to see what we’ve done in the past, all the way back to Vol 1 No 4 in December 1995. (Click on Previous Issues under the “About” tab.)

The results: “double” takes the prize by a long way, with “nothing in particular” a respectable second (as in the cover of Vol 1 No 4 illustrated here). “Combined” is almost nowhere to be found, except this time last year. (Things must have been going well for even longer than I thought!)

There were three other things that I particularly noticed, as I flipped my way through the archive.

First was how often the subjects of the covers of past Dec/Jan issues, especially the early ones, still crop up in our current coverage: Tafelmusik’s Ivars Taurins in his “Herr Handel” Massey Hall “Sing-Along Messiah” outfit (Vol 2); Val Kuinka, who will be stage-directing Highlands Opera Studio’s production of Andrew Balfour’s new opera Mishaabooz’s Realm this December (Vol 3); the Toronto Children’s Chorus (Vol 5) and mezzo Krisztina Szabó (Vol 7) who will appear together in the TCC’s concert “The Fire Within” December 16 at Roy Thomson Hall; Barbara Hannigan (Vol 6), just here in November for a Koerner art song recital, who dropped into her hometown in December 1999, fresh off her Lincoln Center debut, to see in Y2K as the Merry Widow for Toronto Operetta Theatre, whose New Year’s Day-straddling productions of light opera and operettas are a time-honoured fixture of the holiday season … The list goes on. 

Second, amusingly, was noticing the different ways the cover copy on these various issues riffs on the contrast, performance-wise, between December and January: “The Holiday Season and Its (Not-So) Flip Side”; “December Glitter, January Gold”; “To the Holidays and Beyond!”; and (my favourite), “Mid-Season Blip.”

Third, and this is for you, whomever you may be: in analyzing the pattern of when we did and didn’t make an effort on the cover to call attention to the fact that it was a double issue, it seems that the years we made an extra effort (like the words DOUBLE ISSUE in 30-point type around a medallion of two-headed Janus) were right after years when we had made no effort at all. And that is because those were the years when you phoned me up to complain that it was already January 8 and your January WholeNote had still not arrived.

It won’t this year either!

The Rear View Mirror: The context for the headline on Vol 1 No 4, pictured here (still one of my favourites), is that it coincided with a time when funders of the arts (in particular the Ontario Arts Council) were reeling under the impact of the politics of the time. The “Common Sense Revolution” it was called. This year, for the first time in many years, we are seeing significant increases in funding to the OAC (increases that are being passed along). If it’s a sign that the value of the contribution that artists make to the wellbeing of Ontario, economically and in every other way, has been recognized, it’s a welcome sign indeed.

Nicole Lizée - Photo by Steve RaegaleEach year at the University of Toronto’s New Music Festival, a composer is invited to be the Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition. This year the festival, which runs from January 21 to 28, will host Canadian composer, sound artist and keyboardist Nicole Lizée. I’ve been fascinated by Lizée’s unique approach to working with technology and instruments, so this felt like a perfect opportunity to learn more.

One of the key features of her work is the use of what she calls “glitch.” In our recent interview she offered an inspiring description of her unique relationship to working with media-based technologies and what it is that fascinates her about malfunctioning machines.

“I was born into that world. My father is an electronics repairman, salesman and collector who was always repairing or beta testing new technologies and devices. During the 1960s, 70s and 80s there was a lot of experimentation, and many of the machines didn’t always work at first. I grew to love these machines – the way they looked and smelled, as well as the sounds and visuals they would produce.”

Lizée’s parents were huge fans of music, including classical, soundtracks and easy listening, and had an extensive LP collection. Old films were also a favourite, and she grew up watching films on video by Hitchcock, Kubrick and Bergman. “We would watch on repeat, repeat, repeat, and inevitably the tapes would melt or malfunction. This is when those movies became the most interesting to me. The version of The Sound of Music that I know is not the version most people know.”

Nicole Lizée - Photo by Murray LightburnLizée’s passion for both music and film led to a desire to merge these worlds. This, in combination with her strong emotional connection to the malfunctioning analogue technologies of her childhood, inspired her vision to bring this world into the concert hall and to mix it with live instrumental performers.

The main source of fascination was the glitch – machines malfunctioning and not behaving as planned. “Analogue devices have a life beyond what they’re intended to do. They continue to live. The tapes would become chewed or worn down, but would still play back. Their material would then become altered and new rhythms would emerge.” She gives the example of a video game machine that would play, “but if you pushed a certain button in a particular way, something else that wasn’t supposed to happen would start happening. It was crazy – and like going into a portal. I wanted to capture those sounds and those visuals, and compose with that in mind. Capturing glitch means capturing the malfunction, the stuttering, the rhythms and sounds that would be produced.”

Many of her works also use video, but not as accompaniment to the music – rather, the video becomes an instrument itself that the performer engages with in a synced-up dialogue. Even the glitches themselves become instruments.

On the stage, Lizée uses both malfunctioning technologies such as reel to reel tape recorders and old synths, as well as “behaving ones” – usually performed on by others. The glitching devices are unpredictable, so she needs to perform with that in mind and often she has no idea what will happen with them. It requires keeping an open mind and working with whatever happens. Using such devices gives new colours such as hums and hisses, and even when they don’t work properly, other things will be present. Despite the glitches, the analogue machines will always offer her something to work with. They won’t shut off or fail to function – unlike digital devices. “I have never come across an analogue device that completely shuts down. It may go crazy and be unpredictable in a concert, and sometimes there will be a malfunctioning cable, but it will never shut down. It just keeps going.”

Nicole Lizée - Photo by Chris HutchesonWhat enables Lizée to use these glitch features in the composing process is the notation system she has devised. And she doesn’t just approximate the sound, but rather employs great precision to accurately translate what is occurring within the glitch. Using changing time signatures for example, rather than adjusting everything to regular 4/4 time, is one outcome of her approach. Spending years developing her transcription process was essential to developing her perspective on composing music.

And yes, she admits, it is labour intensive, but “ultimately it has pushed me in many ways, and performers tell me repeatedly how it has made them play differently. They all have their stories and it’s extremely interesting to hear how their relationship to this element has pushed them. It taps into different emotions and requires a spot-on precision. The stops and starts, changing tempos, metres, volume extremes, this all requires a player to completely commit to delving into this world.”

Working with glitch brings up emotions in players that are of a different order than usual. The glitch often creates a “forlorn and plaintive sound which gets into the ears and head of the player. People tell me how they’ve gone through shock, fear and sadness, and that’s because of the source material and the way it is dealt with. It is being torn apart, hacked and taken into a different direction than originally intended.”

At the U of T New Music Festival, Montreal’s Architek Percussion will be joining forces with Lizée’s ensemble SaskPwr on the evening of January 25 to perform selections from Lizée’s The Criterion Collection. These short works are an homage to both glitch and to her favourite film directors, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. While watching these films growing up, “I was getting into the language and techniques of the director, but also while watching it, the tape was deteriorating and this whole other world was being created by the glitch and malfunction. The sound and image are completely synonymous and intertwined. When the glitch happens, it happens to both. The performance will be one hour long, nonstop. Everything will be live and synced, with heavily glitched scenes.”

Another of her works, Malfunctionlieder, will be performed during the festival’s noon concert on January 25. This piece was commissioned as a test piece for voice and piano for the 2017 Eckhardt-Gramatté Competition, which is designed to encourage the performance of Canadian and contemporary music. Lizée’s piece includes an accompanying soundtrack and video and represents the first time in the history of the competition (which began in 1976) that the repertoire has included the worlds of both acoustic music and technology. This work also represents a more recent direction for Lizée – to write works for voice. Writing for the voice “opens up the possibility of a whole other world where the live human voice engages with the glitched characters on the screen as well as with the audience.”

And finally, her work Isabella Blow at Somerset House will be performed on January 24 by the Cecilia String Quartet, who played the work earlier this year at the 21C Festival in May. Lizée wrote the piece as an acoustic representation of fashion designer Isabella Blow and what her impact on the fashion industry might sound like. If you are intrigued to experience more of Lizée’s fascinating work, I encourage you to attend not only the concerts, but also her composition masterclasses on January 24 and 26, and the composers’ forum on January 23.

The festival will also feature concerts from the Faculty of Music’s opera, chamber music and orchestra series, a night of improvising music from the jazz department and a concert devoted to electroacoustic music. In addition to Lizée’s Isabella Blow, the Karen Kieser Prize Concert on January 24 features Tyler Versluis’ 2017 prizewinning work 3 Unuttered Miracles for accordion and percussion, along with past prize winner Riho Maimets’ Three Movements for Marimba.

Nicole Lizée - Photo by Steve RaegaleWhat's New? In the New Year (and Previously Mentioned)

On January 26 in the Array Space on Walnut Ave., The Array Ensemble performs four new works by four Canadian composers: Rebecca Bruton (Calgary), Marielle Groven (Montréal), Stephen Parkinson (Toronto) and Holger Schoorl (Toronto). Bruton’s work happens in the intervening spaces between avant-pop, experimental chamber music and noise, and one of her current projects is co-creative producer of Tidal ~ Signal, a Vancouver-based festival dedicated to increasing representation of women and transgender artists within the fields of sound art and experimental music. Groven’s work draws on raw and emotionally charged sounds, with attention to connections between evocative human and instrumental sounds. Parkinson is a composer and performer with the Drystone Orchestra. His work, Desires Are Already Memories, is part of Arraymusic’s New World CD. Schoorl is a guitarist who is an active participant in Toronto’s improvisation community. The day following the concert, all four composers will re-gather and spontaneously compose together in various combinations.

Many of early December’s events of new music were mentioned in my November column, including the “Urgent Voices” concert presented by Continuum Contemporary Music on December 8 and 9 at the Daniels Spectrum Aki Studio, well as New Music Concerts’ “Concertos” on December 3 at the National Ballet School’s Betty Oliphant Theatre.

Upcoming New Music Concerts productions in the new year include “Kammerkonzert” on January 14 at the same venue, with a focus on music by the primary composers of the Second Viennese School, Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Michael Oesterle’s Chamber Concerto will also receive its world premiere there. Then on February 4, NMC presents Calgary’s Land’s End Ensemble at Gallery 345 on Sorauren Ave., performing compositions by Canadians Hope Lee, Sean Clarke and Matthew Ricketts. Anton Webern’s 1922 chamber arrangement of Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie Op.9 will round out the program.

And finally, the Music Gallery presents their first Emergents Concert of the season on December 7 at the the 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media and Education, with four contemporary song cycles created as part of the Sounds Of Silence Initiative. After just one year, this initiative has brought together over 50 composers, poets and musicians to create new Canadian art song that tells the story of a diverse Canadian cultural identity, and supports, in particular, artists from Indigenous, immigrant, black, refugee and LGBT communities.

For details on all these and other performances of interest, consult our comprehensive concert listings in this December-January double issue of the magazine, or online at, where you can filter the listings by genre to simplify your search.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist.

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