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FEATURE | Messiah Follies: Inside Stories About Performing Handel's Ultimate Masterpiece

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Handel’s Messiah is a masterwork of remarkable writing that has lasted centuries of performance. This work is a staple of the Holiday season, and chances are you will catch a performance of it in full or selections from it over the course of the holiday. Between the Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra/Tafelmusik Chamber Choir alone, 15,000 people will hear and experience the music over a two week period.

Much can be said about the love-hate relationship of Choristers, musicians, and conductors and the work. Today, we’re going to explore stories of musicians who have performed the work and when things have just gone off the rails. These are stories of Messiah Follies:

Hilary Apfelstadt: Director of Choral Activities, University of Toronto

Messiahs: Countless

Hilary Apfelstadt has conducted many performances all throughout North America of Messiah. One particular community chorus and orchestra performance stands out to her. Many local groups have “star” soloists that have just always sung certain parts. The tenor in this case had passed his best-before date. After rehearsing, it was clear that he would take his arias at his own pace and his own rhythm regardless of her baton or even what was in the music. He’d never learned to read rhythms properly; he’d just always sung the tenor part in Messiah. Hillary prepared to make the adjustments only to start the actual performance and find that he was doing something else completely different. Truly, “once in a lifetime”!

Marlo Alcock & Steve Szmutni, and several others: Toronto Mendelssohn Choir

Messiahs: Hundreds

This is a Toronto Mendelssohn Choir story that was pieced together from several Choristers. One year, a couple, man and woman, were having an argument near the stage of Roy Thomson Hall. Just going at it, they were clearly audible to the audience and musicians. The Principal Cellist put down his Cello, leaned over to the couple and asked them to leave. The man leaves while the woman sits there and refuses to go. She proceeds to watch the performance radiating a great air of irritation. She eventually got bored and left. Choristers, speaking to ushers later, discovered the man had left cab fare with an usher to give to the woman for her return home. That poor usher got yelled out by the woman for giving it to her after the performance.

Caron Daley: Director of Choral Activities, Duquesne University

Messiahs: Over 20

Caron was singing in a Choir with Symphony Nova Scotia. She was asked to step up as a soloist for some of the auxiliary duets to which she agreed. A few days before the performance she fell ill, and a replacement was found for her features while Caron stuck in the Chorus. At the performance, in an odd twist of fate, the main Mezzo-Soprano fell ill during the first act and Caron’s replacement went on to cover the main part. Caron then had to cover her original part. She ended up being her own replacement! The audience had a good laugh at the recasting after intermission.  

Barry Clegg: Toronto Mendelssohn Choir

Messiahs: 172

Barry has sung with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for 41 years. Over that time there have been 14 different guest conductors for Messiah. He remembers one conductor, Christopher Seaman, who had half the choir sing “Wonderful” and half sing “Bunderful” as a little diction tool. To the women rehearsing For Unto Us a Child is Born, Seaman said, “You sound like ‘Oh dear, another mouth to feed’ – you’re supposed to think, ‘It’s a boy!’” Seaman conducted from the harpsichord, and liked to throw in mischievous quotes from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio during the Pifa. Unforgettable!

Allen Mahabir: St Michael’s Choir School

Messiahs: Over 40

Allen is a choir boy who went to St Mike’s Choir School. While in high school the full Choir was performing the Hallelujah chorus. There is a two beat silence before the final Hallelujah. Most conductors will pause longer for effect. One poor kid was not paying attention and came in well before the rest of the choir on a full-voiced boy-soprano “D” filling the silence of St Michael’s Cathedral. The next note was 70% giggles and 30% pitch. Allen remembers the choirs getting in so much trouble for devolving into giggles. *Note: This is not a problem unique only 11 year old children face; many an Hallelujah has been knocked off the rails from an eager Chorister or instrumentalist.

Jennifer Min-Young Lee: Conductor

Messiahs: Over 30

In Rochester, New York, Jennifer was leading a sing-along version of Hallelujah with the musicians and a full church of singers. Beginning at tempo, the work began the slow march to death. The pace got slower and slower despite her best efforts, and the chorus became a funeral march.

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Lisa Jack: Faculty of Music, University of Toronto

Messiahs: Over 30

Lisa and her husband, Jim, are both music educators from Thunder Bay. In any given year there were performances of Messiah they had to endure, much to Jim’s chagrin. He didn’t really care for the piece. Lisa would always have to endure his commentary during certain pieces. Most memorable: during All We Like Sheep, Jim would always lean over to Lisa and whisper “But I like Lamb.” Quiet giggles would ensue.

Matthew Emery, Composer

Messiahs: None!

Matthew hails from Vancouver. Someone thought it would be appropriate and fun to include live sheep in this particular production of Messiah. So there were sheep. Actual live braying sheep. Suffice it to say, they didn’t only bray during All we like sheep; they brayed the entire performance.

Charlie Davidson: Tenor Soloist

Messiahs: Over 50

A well-known Toronto-based conductor was leading a small choir and orchestra in Messiah at Flato Markham Theatre a few years ago. The Conductor completed Since by Man Came Death, and everyone was prepared for a beautiful pianissimo bass entrance for Behold I Tell You a Mystery. Instead, the entire orchestra got a huge, powerful downbeat because the conductor went straight into The Trumpet Shall Sound. The excited gesture of the conductor’s downbeat was so over the top which made it even funnier. Charlie remembers some of the orchestra physically recoiling from the force of the downbeat. All the musicians were stunned and didn’t play or sing anything. After a few moments one of the instrumentalists played some continuo while everyone recovered and the bass continued.

Kimber Jonah: Toronto Mendelssohn Choir

Messiahs: Over 50

One year, almost two decades ago, a male patron was seated in the organ loft above where the Choir sits. During the performance, this patron began yelling out phrases like “Handel was a Nazi” and other phrases involving “Nazi” and “Handel”. The Conductor stopped, and it was a few minutes before hall attendants were able to make their way to him and escort him from the performance; which continued all the same.

Robert Kinar: Tafelmusik  Chamber Choir

Messiahs: Over 100

Rob remembers a Messiah on a tour that stopped in Barrie. The production was traveling with an organ, and it had come in out of the cold unable to play. The start of the concert was delayed by an hour as the organ acclimatized. During the concert, a member of the orchestra suffered a seizure. Thankfully, they recovered quickly. But yet, there was more! The bass soloist started up the rousing “Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts” which was promptly met with a scream of “Oh my God!” An attendee had suffered a heart attack and was taken to a hospital. Everything paused as assistance came and left. This eventful Messiah was ultimately spirited and uplifting, and most importantly, the audience loved it. Supposed to begin at 8 p.m. it did not conclude until 12:30 a.m.

Bonus:

The Greatest Messiah Organ Fail Ever! I crack up every time I hear this. It’s a shame the video has no faces.

#MUSICALTORONTO

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Brian Chang
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Brian Chang

Brian Chang is Toronto-based choral writer. He is an active choral performer in Toronto singing with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Incontra Vocal Ensemble and serves as a trainer with the Institute for Change Leaders at Ryerson University.
Brian Chang
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