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Ivars Taurins leads local Cantata Singers and Baroque Orchestra in EMV's Messiah

For we like sheep... Image: Francois Boucher

To a packed Chan Centre crowd, Early Music Vancouver laid on a new rendition of George Frederic Handel’s Messiah oratorio. Ivars Taurens, a founding magus of Canada’s trail-blazing Tafelmusik early music ensemble and chamber choir, guest-conducted Vancouver’s own Cantata Singers and Pacific Baroque Orchestra.

For over a decade, EMV audiences have been privileged to view the PBO under the direction (often from behind his harpsichord keyboard) of the orchestra’s resident helmsman, Alexander Weimann, a diminutive figure of almost gnomic intensity.

In physique and conducting style, Taurins couldn’t be more different: an attenuated Gumby of a man who can hardly be contained behind a podium. He paces the stage, crouching to dredge low notes and drum rolls, or unfurling arpeggios with great overhead arcs like a parlour magician yanking rabbits out of a hat.

For this concert, he’s even suited up in a kind of magician suit – black sharkskin, from the look of it, with seemingly extra play tailored into the shoulders and side vents, the better to accommodate his gestural flamboyance.

That’s a far cry from the meticulously-researched Herr Handel costume that Taurins hand-stitched for himself nearly 30 years ago and has worn ever since for his signature annual sing-along Messiah back in his Toronto home base.

Taurin refers to that outfit (complete with lace trimmed frock coat, silk moiré waistcoat, breeches, ruffled linen shirt and powdered perruque) as his “fat suit,” a cumbersome integument deliberately designed to constrain his body language closer to how Handel himself might have conducted at the oratorio’s 1741 premiere in Dublin.

It’s all in line with the Early Music movement’s commitment to “historically informed performance” (HIP). If there’s a particular authenticity to be gained by using period instruments to play the baroque repertoire, why not go in for period conducting styles as well?

Fair enough, but I still greatly appreciated Taurin’s relaxation of HIPster rigour for this year’s EMV Messiah. For one thing, he’s such a balletic joy to watch without his “fat suit.” He conducts not just the onstage performers but even the rest of us in the audience, semaphoring subtle nuances of the score.

Then, too, minus the showmanship of costume and sing-along, the abstract genius of the oratorio can speak more directly to our own time, untethered from the quiddities of Georgian England or, for that matter, from the Messiah’s unwarranted stereotype as Christmas music.

Sure, Christian polemicist Charles Jenner’s libretto, culled from Biblical texts, starts out with scriptural allusions to the Nativity. But it hardly ends there. Over the course of nearly three hours, it goes on to detail Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, the worldwide spread of the Gospel and even the eschatological climax of the Last Judgement, all of which Handel embellishes with the bravura flair that made him such an 18th century “rock star” in the then-new medium of opera.

By the later 1730’s, however, the novelty of opera was wearing thin. Imported Italian troupes were starting to encroach on what had been Handel’s opera monopoly in London, while audiences increasingly clamoured for new works in English. As a pioneering, independent, self-producing music entrepreneur, without the customary noble patronage, Handel needed to try something new.

Oratorio – a grand-scale narrative musical extravaganza for orchestra and voices without costumes, scenery or action – seemed a promising answer. But Handel’s first ventures into the form, overlapping with his later operas, were still rather episodic and “plotty.” Messiah, with its temporal sweep and philosophical bent, marked a clean break; after that he wrote no more operas.

Much credit for this breakthrough goes to Jennen, who stitched the libretto together as a clarion defence of miracle and prophecy against the rising tide of Enlightenment demystification. To the 18th century mind, such questions were real and urgent.

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