There is a joke that circulates amongst orchestral musicians during the month of December: “I had a dream that I was playing a performance of The Messiah. Then I woke up, and I was!”

It is a high order to mount a captivating performance of a work so widely known and so often performed. Furthermore there is a misconception that this Handel oratorio is relatively easy, as it is frequently presented by amateur community choirs. However any chorister who has attempted to sing the melismatic runs in “All ye like sheep” or “His yoke is easy” can confirm that Messiah is fraught with technical challenges.

Paul McCreesh conducts the OSM © Antoine Saito
Paul McCreesh conducts the OSM
© Antoine Saito

Fortunately the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM), its chorus, and vocal soloists gave a vibrant performance of this Christmas chestnut that brought the house down. On the podium was British conductor Paul McCreesh who is the founder and Artistic Director of the renowned Gabrieli Consort & Players. He specializes in music of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Maestro McCreesh demonstrated an encyclopedic command of the score. From the orotund opening Sinfonia, it was evident that the OSM was responding well to this guest conductor. I was particularly impressed by the stately tempo taken in the final Amen. It achieved a reverent interpretation, rather than a bombastic tour de force which characterizes many performances of this final chorus.

American choral conductor Andrew Megill has extensive experience preparing orchestral choruses. In addition to his duties as Chef de Choeur for the OSM, Megill is the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Megill’s attention to detail elevated the contribution of this 40 voice ensemble. The perfectly balanced and blended final chord of “His yoke is easy” attested to Megill’s choral prowess. The OSM chorus was stellar in “All we like sheep”.

The vocal soloists were British-German soprano Susan Wegener, a frequent collaborator with OSM Music Director Kent Negano. English countertenor Robin Blaze has worked previously with Paul McCreesh. The youthful tenor Rupert Charlesworth has already accumulated a breadth of operatic experience, including Bernstein’s A Quiet Place with the OSM. Charlesworth’s voice was wonderfully resonant throughout his range. Revered Canadian baritone Russell Braun frequently performs at the world’s prestigious opera houses, including the Met in New York City.

Paul McCreesh, soloists and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal © Antoine Saito
Paul McCreesh, soloists and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal
© Antoine Saito

From my seat in the Maison Symphonique, the acoustics seemed to limit the degree to which the lower pitched sounds projected. This created problems in terms of orchestral and choir balance, as well as lower tessitura issues in general.

In keeping with the convention in English speaking countries, all rose to their feet for the “Hallelujah Chorus”.  This tradition began at the March 1743 London premiere attended by King George II. As the famous chorus started, he got up and remained standing. There has since been much speculation as to why George II stood. The theory was that the King was so impressed with it that he rose to his feet. Others have speculated that the King’s decision was reflective of the practice of standing during portions of a worship service. The effusive applause that followed it on this night left no doubt that the Montreal audience had been dazzled.

The OSM’s principal trumpeter, Paul Merkelo, sounded great in “The trumpet shall sound”. After having come downstage for this aria, Merkelo exited and returned to his place at the back of the orchestra. However, he had forgotten to take his music with him. Before he was to play again in “Worthy is the Lamb”, proceedings were paused while Maestro McCreesh hand-delivered Merkelo’s sheet music, much to the amusement of the audience.

To the credit of all involved, this Messiah clearly lifted the spirits of the 2100 souls in attendance. The enthusiastic standing ovation at the conclusion was both lengthy and heartfelt.

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