This Week in Toronto (Dec. 14 – 20)

George Frideric Handel Portrait by Balthasar Denner

The third week of December is traditionally one of heavy-duty Messiah presentations in Toronto. Perhaps it reflects my personal bias, top on my list is the one by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall, with a stellar quartet of soprano Erin Wall, mezzo Elizabeth DeShong, tenor Andrew Staples and bass-baritone John Relyea. Three of the four are well known to Toronto opera audiences. Wall (Clemence in L’amour de loin; Antonia in Les contes d’Hoffmann) is a resident of the GTA and she’ll sing the Contessa in Le nozze di Figaro at the Canadian Opera Company next month. DeShong (Angelina in La cenerentola, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) sings Calbo in Maometto secondo with the COC in May. John Relyea is of course the son of the great Canadian bass Gary Relyea. He was last heard at the COC in the title role of Bluebeard’s Castle last season. Only British tenor Andrew Staples is new to Toronto audiences. Conductor Laureate Sir Andrew Davis returns to put his unique stamp on this Handel masterpiece. To my knowledge, this Messiah is presented uncut, and it’s not to be missed. Five performances on Dec. 15, 16, 18, 19, 20. Joining them will be the Canadian national treasure, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

Sir Andrew Davis

If you prefer your Messiah more intimate, the best choice is the one by Tafelmusik with their equally fine yet contrasting vision. Many music lovers prefer the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra which deservedly is Canada’s premiere early music band. Many prefer their version of Messiah with its chamber orchestra on period instruments, the reduced choral forces of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and a quartet of soloists who are usually Baroque specialists. This gives their presentation a different flavour. This year the soloists are soprano Joanne Lunn, mezzo Mary Ellen Nesi, tenor Rufus Muller and baritone Nathaniel Watson. Ivars Taurins is at the helm as usual. In years past, the Tafelmusik Messiah was given at their traditional home of Trinity St. Paul Centre with its special ambience. But with the increasing demand for tickets in recent years, this show has now been relocated to the more comfortable and acoustically friendly Koerner Hall. Even though it’s bigger, the seating capacity is still less than half of the nearly 2,500 seats of Roy Thomson Hall.

Against the Grain Theatre’s Joel Ivany

For those with an affinity for the avant garde, an excellent choice is the re-imagining of Messiah by the stage director Joel Ivany and his Against the Grain Theatre.  This company is known for pushing the envelope, so to speak. Their cutting edge, semi-staged version two years ago at the Opera House, a small venue east of downtown Toronto was quite an experience.  I recall vividly that on opening night, the snowstorm that hit was nearly as memorable as the performance itself! This time around, AtG is partnered with the Corporation of Roy Thomson Hall and Massey Hall in a run of four performances (Dec. 16, 17, 18 at 8 pm, and Dec. 19 at 2 pm) at the more accessible Harbourfront Centre Theatre.  It is essentially a re-mount, but choreographer Jennifer Nichols has created new movements for the presentation. Singers are soprano Miriam Khalil, mezzo Andrea Ludwig, tenor Owen McCausland, and bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus. There’s also a 18 member orchestra and a 16 member chorus, all under the direction of Topher Mokrzewski.  Here’s a preview of the show –   AtG website –

Soprano Miriam Khalil (Photo: Nicola Novak)

An annual institution at this time is the Sing-Along Messiah for those keen to exercise their vocal cords. It’s the same soloists and orchestra and choir as the regular Tafelmusik Messiah, but you get to sing along!  Here is the full program –  You can also find out more about the show from the modern-day Herr George Frideric, the alter-ego of Tafelmusik conductor Ivars Taurins.  I saw this once many moons ago, and I can say that it’s something that everyone should go to at least once in a life time. Joining 2,700 other souls in the Hallelujah Chorus is a thrilling experience. This show at the venerable old lady of concert venues, Massey Hall, sells out every year, so don’t be tardy and get your tickets as soon as possible.

For an alternative to Messiah, the Toronto Choral Society is presenting an equally beloved piece, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on Wednesday Dec. 16th 7:30 pm at Eastminster United Church 310 Danforth Avenue east of downtown Toronto. Conductor Geoffrey Butler leads soloists soprano Anne Marie Ramos, mezzo Jillian Yemen, baritone Anthony Cleverton, organist William O’Meara and the Talisker Players.

Baritone Russell Braun (Photo: Johannes Ifkovits)

Toronto Children’s Chorus under the direction of Elise Bradley is presenting A Chorus Christmas: Across the Universe on Dec. 19th 2 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.  The choral forces consist of the Toronto Children’s Chorus at 300 members, plus the 100-voice Alumni Choir. On the program is the world premiere of Fantasia on Christmas Carols for Treble Voices and Baritone – the baritone being none other than the great Russell Braun!  Incidentally, there’s no mention of the composer’s name on the Toronto Children’s Chorus website.

If you are looking for some non-Holiday programming, a very good choice is the recital by the fine Ukrainian Canadian pianist/composer Dmitri Levkovich. On the program are works by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Schubert, and Mozart. Performance at the Heliconian Hall in Yorkville on Wednesday, Dec. 16th 8 pm. You can find plenty of audio and video clips of Mr. Levkovich at his website –


About Author

Joseph K. So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, but his first love is music, which he studied as an undergraduate student at the State University of New York. Since seeing his first live opera – La Gioconda with Renata Tebaldi at the Met in 1967, the singing voice became his lifelong favourite instrument. In addition to his longtime contributions to La Scena Musicale and The Music Scene, he is Associate Editor of Opera Canada and a frequent contributor to Musical Toronto.

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