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So you want to sing in Tafelmusik’s “Messiah”? The beginner and veterans’ perspectives

So you want to sing in Tafelmusik’s “Messiah”? The beginner and veterans’ perspectives featured image

Members of Tafelmusik Chamber Choir (left to right): Carrie Loring, Susan Suchard, Meghan Moore. Photo: Andrew Eusebio

In December 2017, I decided to attend Tafelmusik’s  Sing-Along Messiah, thinking it’d be nice to pick up where I left off singing in the school choir from my university days. Well, let me tell you, that’s like a former long distance runner thinking they can just up and jog a marathon after 25 years of not training. I was humbled by how far my choral chops have fallen, and put my score of Messiah on my bookshelf after the concert and slunk away.

This year, I decided to attend Tafelmusik’s Messiah workshop this past weekend at Eglinton St. George’s United Church. Despite realizing I’d be out of town and missing this year’s Sing-Along, I still wanted to get into shape, chorally. Upon arrival, I was greeted by various staff stationed throughout the church in such a way you couldn’t possibly get lost or not know where the washrooms were. Inside the church, smiling choristers were holding up big signs to direct you to your section by voice. I’m an alto.

When you’re nervously approaching your section, trust me, you want to see some smiling faces like these.

 

Ivars Taurins, the director of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, gave the workshop. Along with his duties as choir director, he dresses up for the Sing-Along concert in period costume as Herr Handel himself, and with German accent, tells the audience anecdotes, warns everyone to turn off cell phones, and leads the musicians and audience in the sing-along.

Herr Handel leading the audience in Messiah

 

At the Messiah workshop, a ticketed event for anyone wishing to prepare for the sing-along, Taurins was thoroughly engaging and occasionally hilarious, conveying his knowledge about Handel’s life and music. Charlotte Nediger, Tafelmusik’s principal keyboard player, accompanied us on the organ, and we warmed up by honouring her 60th that day with a full-harmonized version of “Happy Birthday”. Throughout the workship, Taurins gave us goofy demonstrations of cows loping along a path and dancing around to highlight the playfulness of some of Handel’s themes. He also offered up tips on how to sit properly (memories of my choir professor, James Fankhauser, shrieking his outrage if he caught us slouching or with legs crossed!), the importance of singing the text with conviction, to breathe well, and quickly, and NOT be late – “Handel gets upset”. He also told us about “rhetorical repetition”, a la Foghorn Claghorn, about how repeating text adds emphasis but only if we sing them differently and with increased intensity. We were also reminded to read the score vertically, so you get a feel for what everyone is doing and not get caught up in your own part (comparing us to Mennonite horses with blinders on). Throughout the workshop, we’d rehearse parts of the oratorio, Taurens often working without the score, and singing along with us.

Ivars Taurins invigorating the sing-alongers. He busted out quite a few moves!

 

I sensed quite the camaraderie among the singers and wondered about those who formally committed to this yearly ritual. What draws people to joining a choir? What is it about Messiah that they love, especially the Sing-Along? I spoke with three members of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, a group of 22 singers specializing in 17th- and 18th-century music. Lead by Taurins, the singers developed a sound and style appropriate to the repertoire they perform. I posed questions to three members of the choir to ask about the enduring appeal of Handel’s Messiah.

Chorister #1: Carrie Loring, professional singer & Director of the Preparatory Choirs of the Bach Children’s Chorus
Number of years doing the sing-along: 25 years

Chorister #2: Susan Suchard, professional singer and voice teacher
Number of years doing the sing-along: 15

Chorister #3: Meghan Moore , professional singer and CEO of the Loran Scholars Foundation
Number of years doing sing-along: 13

What makes Tafelmusik’s Sing-Along Messiah so special?
Carrie: It is a magical event, for sure. Over 2500 people come together under one roof to sing this great work under the baton of Mr. Handel himself. One can imagine that many of them have dear memories and stories to tell of Messiahs they once sang.
Susan: All 15 of the Tafelmusik Sing-Along Messiahs in which I have participated have taken place at Massey Hall. Each year, it is a thrill to walk into that gorgeous hall and look out to see the packed house of eager faces. Truth to tell, it always makes me a little verklempt. I have no doubt that the experience will be equaling exhilarating this year at our current venue, Roy Thomson Hall. There is such a buzz backstage amongst the choir before we walk out. I feel that, whatever I give to the audience that day in terms of my expertise in singing these marvelous choruses, is given back to me, in spades, by the earnest, joyful folks that I see giving it their all in front of me.
Meghan: It is such a unique experience to walk out on stage and have more than 2500 people singing with us! We, on stage, are the lucky ones, getting to experience that kind of collective music-making. There is something so special about the shared experience of singing together and it’s the one time we get to experience it with our own audience members.

Why do you think audience members keep coming back year after year?
Carrie: Mr. Handel invites us all to leave our troubles at the door. I often wonder about the joys and sorrows experienced by all those people over the past year. And, so here they are again, woes left outside, joining their voices with a passion for the piece, and an earnest desire to make beautiful music together and please the Maestro!
Susan: In the Sing-Along Messiah audience, I see the regulars who line up for the front seats with well-worn scores, along with newcomers – some who are just there to be surrounded by the amazing sound and some who are brave enough to throw caution to the wind and participate.  I usually see some fellow choral singers in the audience who are there because they need to sing at least one performance of this epic work at least once a year. There will be new audience members, like my 8-year-old voice student, whose mother is buying her first Messiah score this season and bringing her along. In the first row of the balcony for the past five years, I’ve spotted the twins who sing in VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto (I conduct the youngest choir for VIVA!) attending with their parents. These lucky girls are growing up with the tradition of choral singing and with the Tafelmusik Sing-Along in particular. For the past three years, a friend of mine has attended, whose memories of singing in school in England made him decide to dust off his lately-unused vocal cords and add his rusty baritone to the mix.
Meghan: Messiah is such a moving and dramatic work. For us in the choir, it’s a privilege to be able to be a part of that musical storytelling night after night. For our Sing-Along audience, it’s their one chance to be a part of this magnificent composition, their one chance to join with thousands of others to tell this epic story through song.

What’s the difference between regular Messiah performances and the Sing-Along?
Carrie: There is no audience singing along at our regular Tafelmusik performances and those are all conducted by Ivars Taurins, whereas the Sing-Along is for all to join in with Mr. Handel at the helm.
Susan: As Carrie mentioned, at the Sing-Along performances, we are graced by Mr. Handel himself wielding the baton. We have the same soloists as we do in the non-Sing-Along performances, and onstage, the musicians of the choir and orchestra turn in polished performances as usual, but audience members join in singing the choruses if they wish. The audience can choose to sit in voice part sections or in the “mixed choir” section. Mr. Handel opens the proceedings with his always-humorous comments and occasionally invites a guest to join him.
Meghan: The Sing-Along is a true treat for us on stage: I spend most of the performance watching the elated faces of audience members belting out their parts and marveling at the sound coming back at us. I also love waiting in anticipation to see what Mr. Handel will do next.

What is your own personal favourite Sing-Along moment? Any mishaps over the years?
Carrie: Every year seems to take me by surprise. I am usually smiling from ear to ear, or holding back the tears, and I never know when the emotions will hit. I particularly love when Mr. Handel enters the venue for the first time. He is cheered on by all his beloved fans and you can just feel the excited anticipation in the air. Mishap? Poor Handel’s pants almost fell off one year, and apparently it’s hard to conduct with your knickers in a knot!
Susan: How can I name just one favourite Sing-Along moment? I love, love bagpipes! I loved seeing Martin de la Rue (aka Martin Reis from the Tafelmusik Box Office) on a bicycle onstage. I loved Mr. Handel’s onstage interaction with actor R.H. Thomson. I look forward each year to hearing orchestra members Marco Cera and John Abberger demonstrate the “pifa or piffari” for us. I fondly remember former Tafelmusik choristers who participated every year in this event and particularly John Pepper, in his annual turn as Mr. Handel’s stoic man-servant, and Paul Oros, in his lovely, plaid Sing-Along vest. Don’t let Mr. Handel know this, but each year when we do the encore of the Hallelujah chorus, a couple of my fellow soprani and I interpolate a high D on the last chord. Love it! Shhhh!
Meghan: the last 9 bars of the work, at the climax of the Amen, when the sopranos come in on the high A, I get the most incredible, full-body shivers every time. It’s the most magnificent part of the piece for me and hearing 2500 voices, raised in song at that point is simply sublime.`

What advice do you have for a Sing-Along newcomer?
Carrie: If you’re a singer, then just grab a score, raise your voice and enjoy. If you’re not a singer, there’s still a lot to see and hear, and fun to be had! And I would bet that you can wail out a Hallelujah or two!
Susan: Do sit in the section you plan to sing with. If you don’t read music at all, follow the top line of the score and sit near the sopranos. But just take a chance and come along. You’ll love it!
Meghan: Whether you know Messiah already or not, let yourself get swept up in the music-making and the drama – it’s a once-a-year chance to be part of something spectacular. Oh, and be sure to listen to Mr. Handel and follow his cues!

***

In keeping with the message of peace, charity, and goodwill at the heart of Handel’s Messiah, Tafelmusik invites audience members to share their holiday goodwill and help families in need. In partnership with the Daily Bread Food Bank, Tafelmusik will be collecting non-perishable food items at all Messiah performances. Please note during Massey Hall’s revitalization, the concerts are held in different venues this year.

December 18, 19, 20, and 21 at 7:30 pm at Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre, and at Sing-Along Messiah on December 22 at 2 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.

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