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Encountering the Messiah at Roy Thompson Hall

© By Mike Keenan
Roy Thompson Hall

Roy Thompson Hall

Downtown Toronto

Downtown Toronto

Hockey Hall of Fame

The Royal Alex

St Patrick's

St Patrick's

St. Lawrence Market

  For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6)

Looking back, those lyrics were far better than Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and squeaky-voiced shopping mall speakers' chipmunk attempts to help celebrate shopping. At the first hint of Christmas, I dig out my copy of the Messiah, Handel's popular and famous piece of sacred music. Into the CD player it goes and stays, casting a musical reverie for weeks on end.
     Born in Halle, Germany, February 23, 1685, Handel died in London, April 14, 1759. Although he featured it at Easter, his great oratorio persists as a beautiful Christmas signature. To combat the commercial excess associated with Christmas, we try to make the festive season more experiential and treated ourselves to Handel at a Sunday performance in Toronto's Roy Thompson Hall.
     Remarkably, the composer encountered an ebb in his career with a stroke that caused partial paralysis on his left side when he completed Messiah speedily in 21 days. A friend, Charles Jennens, convinced Handel to compose an oratorio based upon a compilation of Scriptures that Jennens had arranged. Messiah was first performed in Dublin, April 13, 1742. As with all oratorios, it is divided into three components. They represent Christ's birth, death, and resurrection; each breaking down into a series of arias and choruses that lead to the famous Hallelujah Chorus when it is customary for the audience to stand.
     Roy Thompson Hall is located in front of the Royal Alex Theatre, mirrored by office towers on King Street. Named for the late Canadian newspaper mogul, Baron Thomson of Fleet, it's home to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Mendelssohn Choir. Opening in 1982, it has hosted the world's great performers, even Tom Jones who was showered with hotel keys and panties thrown on stage. The 80-foot-high glass roof envelopes a thrilling 30,000-square-foot enclosure, designed by Canadian architect, Arthur Erickson, with acoustics in mind at each stage of planning to thrill the capacity audience of 2,875.
     In a speech at his alma mater, McGill, Erickson said, "Great buildings that move the spirit have always been rare. In every case they are unique, poetic, products of the heart, of sensibility and with a freshness of view, which shows us the way and reminds us of our mission to inspire. They are honest, simple and stirring. They reinforce the way of architecture - the quiet voice that underlies it and has guided it from the beginning." This is true of Roy Thompson Hall.
     Erickson designed other public buildings such as the San Diego Convention Center, the UBC Museum of Anthropology, the Vancouver Court House, Simon Fraser University, and the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC.
     A favourite memory associated with the Messiah is a Christmas performance in Boston's renowned Symphony Hall. As the well-dressed crowd emptied, a young woman asked her companion how he enjoyed the performance. He said he enjoyed it but confessed puzzlement as to why the singers repeated the lyrics over and over again.
     Over the years, I have listened to many performances of the Messiah which last approximately two hours. The Toronto performance was the best, augmented by the Mendelssohn Choir, a chorus of 117 voices that volleyed lyrics back and forth across the stage like a championship tennis match. The last chorus consists of one word, Amen, and it seems to go on and on forever. There are some lyrics of which I never tire. The Messiah will stay in our CD player for a few more months. Who knows, it might last until Easter.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

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Mike Keenan

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