Last night I attended my third Messiah, although my first in Ottawa. The first two were put on by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall. One year it was advertised as Toronto's favourite Messiah, and the other as Toronto's biggest. Take that how you will; but I will tell you this: Toronto loves Handel's Messiah more than any other city in the world, probably. You can't go anywhere around the holidays without seeing advertisements from all sorts of musical groups inviting you to their rendition. So it was a little disappointing to learn that there would only be two shows put on by the NAC Orchestra in Ottawa–especially as the performance was such a good one.
I was a little sceptical at first–the choir was maybe a fifth the size of the one I remembered seeing in Toronto, and although I know pretty much nothing about music, I could see that the orchestra was quite a bit smaller as well. But then I remembered that I hadn't been overwhelmingly pleased by some of the elements of the second Toronto performance I'd seen (2010, I think), which had included sleigh bells. The audience here gave be a bit of worry, too, as they seemed like they might not really be into the whole thing. Indeed, the people sitting in front of us clearly weren't because they were glued to their phones the entire evening and left right after the Hallelujah chorus (by accident, I thought, assuming they assumed that because everyone stood up that meant it was the end of it, but my husband thinks they planned their “escape” deliberately). Their loss. They missed the best part, the “Worthy is the Lamb” and “Amen” at the end.
Let me be clear: I know pretty much nothing about music. But maybe that's why I like Messiahs so much. I know that I like it, and I like that the music follows the emotion of the text, and I'm familiar with it and thus can enjoy that fulfilling of the anticipated moment that comes with listening to live performances of pieces with which you are familiar. I'm sure there's some kind of music theory term to explain that experience, but I'm afraid that's the best I have. I also dearly love the trumpet music (performed here by Karen Donnelly). Partly it makes me happy simply because I notice that it delights me. “Ah!” I think. “I, too, can appreciate music!” But also it just really is delightful. And this performance was delightful! There were moments when I wished for the vocal power of a massive TSO-esque choir, but then I realised that this was the first Messiah I'd attended where I really found myself paying intent attention to the orchestra and not just the choir (and trumpet). I was able to really appreciate all the strings, for instance, and I think that with a larger, louder choir they might have been lost, or at least overwhelmed. The choir was made up of the Cantata Singers of Ottawa (Michael Zaugg) and Seventeen Voyces (Kevin Reeves). I was obedient and didn't take any pictures during the performance, but this should give you a sense of the size of the thing:
Also, I'm not sure if you can see that little star in the picture beside “soprano,” but they are attached to each name because apparently singers count as actors and belong to the Canadian Actors' Equity Association:
Who knew? I sure didn't.
Anyway! Paul Goodwin was the conductor, and as my handy programme let me know, he's a bit of a traditionalist, a man after my own heart. He seemed to get more and more excited as the night went on, gathering up energy from the performance rather than expending it, and by the end of it he was literally leaping into the air. It was fascinating to watch: at certain points (such as during the Amen at the end) he seemed to be throwing music into the air, like a magician: not pulling it out of the performers, but casting it on them. And that is the most special thing for someone like me who knows nothing about music: the absurdity that bits of wood and string and metal and people can be guided into making such a coherent thing. Ah! You musicians go ahead and laugh at me; I don't mind.
But not all is good in this story. The fact is that there were only two performances and that even with that there was a visible area of empty seats. This should not be! Why aren't people going to see these things? The National Arts Centre hosts not only the orchestra, but travelling Broadway-type shows, pop concerts, the ballet, and what have you. Are people really so uninterested in the arts here that they can manage to fit it all in one building? That is a real shame.