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Holiday Q&A: Tafelmusik Chamber Choir Director Ivars Taurins on Handel’s Messiah

Ivars Taurins in fine fettle as Handel (photo by Gary Beechey)

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir‘s joyous holiday concert, the Sing-Along Messiah. Both vocalists and non-singers are welcome to enjoy the show on December 18 at Massey Hall. (The ensemble also offers non-participatory concerts December 14 to 17 at Koerner Hall.) We asked Maestro Handel—er… Choir Director Ivars Taurins—what makes the Sing-Along performance so special, and what audience members can do to tune up their vocal chords should they choose to partake in a few Hallelujahs.

How would you describe baroque music
to the uninitiated?

The word “baroque” was originally used as a derogatory description of art or music which was overly extravagant, irregular, or even bizarre. It comes from the Portuguese word barroco, describing a misshapen pearl. In the twentieth century it has become the respectable term for music from about 1600, when opera was born in Italy, until about 1750, the year of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death. Some of the most often-performed baroque composers include Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Baroque music can be at once exuberant and extrovert, or intimate and soulful. To the layperson it is generally more “accessible” than the often turgid, dense style of romantic music, or the esoteric qualities of modern music.

How do you prepare to step into the role of George Frideric Handel?
For the last 25 years, my preparation backstage has been to go over my lines and get back into the role. The inspiration for my script usually hits me less than 48 hours in advance, so read “stressas the underlying backdrop. I have to put on the various elements of the costume enough in advance so that I can get used to feeling suitably rotund, bulky and rather ancient. I start walking around with more of a gait and take off my glasses so that my eyes adjust enough to be able to make out faces by the time of the concert. Once I get into my “fat suit,” there are technicalities that limit my movements and possibilities, so I have to carefully time make-up, dressing, meals, etc., right down to the last minute before I step onto the stage.

Of course, the director does not always wear a powdered wig...

What sorts of challenges arise when directing the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and the audience “choir” at the same time?
I’m not really challenged conducting both the Tafelmusik orchestra and choir at the same time as the audience. Tafelmusik pretty well runs on its own at the Sing-Along. The trick really is to coordinate a mass of 2,700 voices in an orderly, musical fashion without having them realize that there is any effort involved!

How do you keep a score like Messiah fresh while maintaining its core elements?
There are always things to discover, and rediscover, in a great work of art. It’s like peeling the layers off a gigantic onion—there’s always another layer. Music like Handel’s Messiah never fails to enrich and energize me.

How does Handel’s Messiah compare to Tafelmusik’s other performances?
Performing Handel’s Messiah with Tafelmusik every season is like visiting with an old friend. We all know it so well, and though the three-hour oratorio is physically and mentally rigorous to get through, the music always inspires and lifts our audience and us to a different, special place. After our multiple concert performances, we cap it all off with the Sing-Along Messiah, with Herr Handel’s exuberance leading us all to greater achievements. Where else can an audience get to actively participate in the music making?

Let’s say that I’d like to sing along at the show, but I’m not exactly Canadian Idol material. Do you have any suggestions on how I might warm up and/or improve my singing voice?
Herr Handel himself would say that the audience choir should try to keep their eyes on him and follow his tempo! People who are new to Messiah might want to listen to a recording beforehand to familiarize themselves with the music. For those who read music, getting their hands on a copy of the score is very helpful! We sell copies for $10 at Massey Hall on the day of the performance. Finally, people should relax, enjoy and just sing! This is a joyous event for singers and non-singers alike!

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