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Program Notes: Messiah

Program Notes

Handel: Messiah

A portrait of George Frederic Handel

Born: Halle, Germany, Feb 23, 1685
Died: London, England, Apr 14, 1759

Composed: 1741

The English oratorio, of which Messiah is certainly the most popular, was a genre that Handel single-handedly invented when his fortunes as an operatic impresario declined in London through the 1730s. The new genre emerged fully-formed with his 1732 London revival of Esther—which he had composed around 1718 as a short, masque-like entertainment—recast as a big, three-act concert work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, blending elements of contemporary Italian opera with the choral style of his own English anthems. Beginning especially with Saul and Israel in Egypt in 1739, oratorio supplanted opera as Handel’s principal musical occupation, and remained so for the last 20 years of his life.

In 1741, the same year in which he presented his last Italian opera in London, Handel was invited to produce a season in Dublin, and, that summer, he composed Messiah. Its rapid composition, completed in a little over three weeks, has become the stuff of legend, though it was not really remarkable by Handel’s standards. The libretto was taken from the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible and compiled by Charles Jennens, an eccentric but well-connected Englishman (and a fan of Handel’s since the 1720s) with a passion for literature and music. The première of Messiah was at a benefit concert, in collaboration with the Charitable Musical Society, for the “Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay.”

“It gave universal Satisfaction to all present,” one local newspaper wrote, “and was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard.”

Handel introduced Messiah to London in March 1743, though not before weathering some controversy—a musical setting of a religious subject intended for public entertainment outside the church was deemed by certain authorities to be an improper conflation of sacred and secular. Objections were short lived, however, and Messiah quickly assumed its familiar place (in the English-speaking world especially) as one of Handel’s most beloved works. From 1749, he performed it annually until his death, under his own auspices in the spring to close his theatrical season, then shortly thereafter for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital. (Given the popularity of performing Messiah at Christmas time, it is interesting to note that Handel’s own performances were invariably around Easter.)

After Handel’s death in 1759, the popularity of Messiah continued to spread. By the end of the 18th century—at a time when there was almost no market for “ancient music” (meaning any music not brand new)—Messiah was being performed and admired throughout Europe, and was also being adapted to accommodate changing tastes: with choruses and orchestras much larger than those used by Handel, in updated arrangements (Mozart reworked it for a classical orchestra in 1789), and, as amateur choirs became increasingly popular through the 19th century, in massed choir performances. Since about 1950, some scholars and historical performers have come together in an effort to restore the more intimate forces and the performance practices that prevailed in Handel’s day, but Messiah still retains an unrivaled position in mainstream choral repertoire and the popular imagination—one of few works that can claim a continuous performance history through to the present day.

The Handel oratorio, to quote one contemporary definition, is “a musical Drama, whose Subject must be Scriptural, and in which the Solemnity of Church-Musick is agreeably united with the most pleasing Airs of the Stage.” In many ways, Messiah is typical of the genre—in its reliance on operatic recitative and aria, for instance, and its basic structure of three large “acts” divided into smaller, quasi operatic “scenes'” usually culminating in a chorus. But Messiah also differs from Handel’s other oratorios in significant ways.

First, it deals directly with the life of Christ— subject matter that audiences were not accustomed to seeing in an English theatre. Second, the text includes no real poetry (i.e. no rhymed or metrical verse), only relatively short units of prose. Third, the text is a narrative, not a drama. The story is told by a single narrative voice, though that voice is shared among solo and choral forces. The story is not dramatized, but observed, related, interpreted, contemplated. Part One deals with Biblical prophecies of the Saviour, and their realization in the incarnation of Christ; Part Two deals with the events of Christ’s Passion and the ultimate triumph of the Second Coming; and Part Three comments on Christ’s role as Saviour.

The libretto, however, gives almost no attention to Christ’s own words and deeds— his teachings are ignored, and his death is treated only sketchily. Still, the sequence of texts as Jennens arranged them is certainly dramatic on its own terms, and well suited to an operatic scheme of alternating recitatives, arias, and choruses. Moreover, the text encourages the evocative musical imagery and occasional explicit tone-painting of which Handel was such a master; his text-setting here is among his most subtle, colourful, and emotionally charged.

There is no one definitive Messiah; even the original Dublin Messiah counts as only one among many authentic versions. For years, beginning with the 1743 London performances, Handel tinkered with the score and fiddled with the orchestration, too. Originally scored for a relatively small, non-theatrical ensemble (trumpets, drums, strings, and continuo, with no horns or woodwinds), from at least 1745, he took to strengthening the orchestration, first with oboes and bassoons, later with horns. And so there are almost as many authentic versions of Messiah as there were Handel performances of it—a situation that has become only more complicated over the succeeding centuries, as other performers, conductors, arrangers, and editors have rearranged Messiah for themselves. In reality, any version of Messiah is a compromise—merely one choice from among a plethora of legitimate options.

Program note by Kevin Bazzana

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Simon Rivard, RBC Resident Conductor

TSO RBC Resident Conductor and TSYO Conductor Simon Rivard

Simon Rivard has been serving as RBC Resident Conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Conductor of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra since 2018. He has recently been named a 2019/20 Equilibrium Young Artist as part of Canadian soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan’s internationally acclaimed mentorship program for early career professional musicians.

At the TSO, Simon Rivard is mentored by the Interim Music Director, Sir Andrew Davis. In addition to leading school and family concerts as well as special events, he has been assisting world-class conductors such as Gustavo Gimeno, Donald Runnicles, Barbara Hannigan, Ludovic Morlot, John Storgårds, and Thomas Dausgaard. In 2019, he made a successful début with Symphony Nova Scotia (Halifax, Canada) and Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä.

In 2018, Rivard was invited to participate in the first Conducting Mentorship Program at the Verbier Festival Academy (Switzerland). In addition to being mentored by Valery Gergiev, he acted as assistant conductor to Sir Simon Rattle, Gianandrea Noseda, Marc Minkowski, and Gábor Tákacs-Nagy. At the conclusion of the Verbier Festival, he was awarded a Special Prize, to help him pursue his mentorship with Gergiev and Noseda.

In 2017/18, Rivard served as resident conductor of the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra (Ontario, Canada). In 2017, he stepped in for Jean-Philippe Tremblay as music director of the Orchestre de la Francophonie, leading successful performances in Montreal, Quebec City, Domaine Forget, and Ottawa.

Born in Montreal (Quebec), he studied violin performance with Anne Robert and orchestral conducting with Raffi Armenian at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal. He completed an MMus in Orchestral Conducting at McGill University under Alexis Hauser and Guillaume Bourgogne.

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Anna-Sophie Neher, soprano

Soprano Anna-Sophie Neher

Canadian German soprano Anna-Sophie Neher received her Bachelor’s Degree from the Montreal Conservatory. After studying a year in New York under the tutelage of Sanford Sylvan and Dawn Upshaw, she completed her master's degree in 2018 at McGill University where she worked with Dominique Labelle. During her years of study, Anna-Sophie stood out in several competitions and received many grants, including one from the Sylva Gelber Foundation (2018) and the Jacqueline Desmarais Foundation (2016-2018). In 2017, she won 1st place in the Manulife Competition of the Montreal Symphonic Orchestra and the prestigious McGill University Wirth Prize. She also participated in the Montreal International Competition and the Salzburg International Mozartwettbewerb.

Anna-Sophie made her COC debut in 2018 alongside Thomas Hampson and Karita Mattila, creating the role of Lavia in the world premiere of Hadrian, Rufus Wainwright's new opera. Anna-Sophie’s operatic include Blanche (Dialogue of the Carmelites) with Opera McGill, Adele (Die Fledermaus) with Opera McGill (2017), Pamina (die Zauberflöte) organized by the Bard College (2016) and Belinda (Dido and Aeneas) with the Montreal Conservatory of Music (2014). In 2019, she will have her debut with the National Arts Centre Orchestra by performing the role of Barbarina (Le Nozze di Figaro).

In concert, Anna-Sophie has been a soloist with numerous professional orchestras and choirs including the Gatineau Symphonic Orchestra and the Lanaudière International Festival’s Orchestra. She has been heard in Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, in the Cminor Mass, the Coronation Mass and Mozart's Requiem, in Schumann's Der Rose Pilgerfahrt, and in some Bach's cantatas at Bourgie Hall in Montreal. In 2019, you will be able to hear Anna-Sophie accompanied by her brother Carl Matthieu Neher at the piano on a Canadian tour organized by Jeunesses Musicales Canada.

Anna-Sophie is currently a member of the Canadian Opera Company’s prestigious Ensemble Studio.

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Rihab Chaieb, mezzo-soprano

A photo of mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb

Tunisian-born Rihab Chaieb is a graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program where she appeared in numerous productions, including L’italiana in Algeri (Zulma), Luisa Miller (Laura), Cavalleria Rusticana (Lola) and Hänsel und Gretel (Sandmännchen). Returning since as a guest in Don Giovanni (Zerlina) under Cornelius Meister, she appears there this season as Nefertiti in Phelim McDermott’s unforgettable production of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, conducted by Karen Kamensek.

Demonstrating strong repertoire versatility in recent seasons, Rihab Chaieb debuted as Charlotte in Werther at Opera Vlaanderen under Giedrė Šlekytė, at Houston Grand Opera in the world premiere of Tarik O’Regan’s The Phoenix, as Rosina (Il barbiere di Siviglia) at Cincinnati Opera and as Offenbach’s Fantasio at Opéra de Montpellier. For Dutch National Opera, Chaieb sang Lola in Robert Carsen’s new staging under Lorenzo Viotti, Dorabella at Teatro Santiago de Chile, Kasturbai in Philip Glass’ Satyagraha at Opera Vlaanderen, and received unanimous acclaim for her first Carmen in Lydia Steier’s intense new production for Oper Köln.

On the concert stage, Rihab Chaieb has performed with Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal under Johannes Debus in Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and in a programme of Rossini under Kent Nagano; with both Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under Otto Tausk and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Carlos Miguel Prieto in de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat; and at the Toronto Summer Music Festival in her first Das Lied von der Erde. Last season, Rihab Chaieb joined Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s line-up of soloists for an audiovisual recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with Orchestre Métropolitain for broadcast on DG Stage, Deutsche Grammophon’s new online platform.

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Spencer Britten, tenor

A photo of tenor Spencer Britten

Canadian triple threat Spencer Britten feels at home in both the Operatic and Musical Theatre repertoire. His recent projects have allowed him to enjoy the utilization of his extensive dance and opera training. Recently, Spencer has been a Young Artist at The Glimmerglass Festival and L'Atelier Lyrique de l'Opéra de Montréal.

Spencer is currently a member of the International Opera Studio at Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin where he will sing roles such as Borsa in Rigoletto, Janek Prus in a new production of The Makropulos Case, and Kalil in Die Arabische Nacht. Last season he was also a soloist in Against the Grain Theatre's highly acclaimed Messiah/Complex. Praised for his "joyous" Comfort Ye/Every Valley (The New York Times/The Globe & Mail) "his performance was oozing with mirth and personality" (Opera Canada).

Spencer was recently a finalist in the Opera Crown Tbilisi International Voice Competition and has been a winner/recipient of The Jacqueline Desmarais Foundation For Young Canadian Opera Singers, The Vancouver Opera Guild Career Development Grant, The Vancouver Opera Chorus Endowment Career Development Grant, The Joseph and Melitta Kandler Scholarship for the Advanced Music Study, and The Barbara Eves-Motomochi Memorial Fund. He thanks the generous opera communities of Vancouver and Montreal for their constant support.

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Stephen Hegedus, bass-baritone

Bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus

Bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus is frequently heard with leading orchestras and opera companies in Canada and abroad. His operatic roles include Figaro and the Count (Le nozze di Figaro), Leporello (Don Giovanni), Colline (La Bohème), Guglielmo (Così fan tutte), Alidoro (La Cenerentola), Albert (Werther), Nick Shadow (The Rake’s Progress), Collatinus (The Rape of Lucretia), Talbot (Maria Stuarda), Sprecher (Die Zauberflöte), Masetto (Don Giovanni) and Angelotti (Tosca). He has been engaged by the Teatro Municipal de Santiago, Canadian Opera Company, Vancouver Opera, L’Opéra de Montréal, Opera Atelier, Pacific Opera Victoria, Edmonton Opera, Opera Columbus, Opera Hamilton and Against the Grain Theatre.

A prize winner at the Lyndon Woodside Oratorio Solo Competition, hosted by the Oratorio Society of New York, Mr. Hegedus’ extensive concert experience includes appearances with the Vancouver and Seattle Symphonies (Mozart’s Requiem) , Winnipeg Symphony (Haydn’s Creation), the Grant Park Festival (Dvorak’s The Spectre’s Bride, Brahms’s Requiem), l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (Bernstein’s A Quiet Place), the Florida Orchestra (Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9), the Aldeburgh Festival (Bach’s B-minor Mass) and the l’Orchestre symphonique de Québec (Bach’s Magnificat).

Stephen has performed Handel’s Messiah with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Seattle Symphony, Houston Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, San Antonio Symphony, Edmonton Symphony, the Vancouver Chamber Choir, Naples Philharmonic and Victoria Symphony.

Recent appearances include the Count (The Marriage of Figaro) with Opera Atelier, Dulcamara (L’elisir d’amore) with Vancouver Opera and Colline (La Bohème) with Pacific Opera Victoria. In December he appeared as a soloist with the Orchestre Métropolitain singing Messiah under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

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Toronto Mendelssohn Choir

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir on stage at Roy Thomson Hall with the TSO

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (TMC), Canada’s world-renowned and Grammy-nominated large vocal ensemble, performs choral music drawn from five centuries, including grand symphonic masterworks, world premières of new compositions, and rarely heard works. The TMC presented its first concert on January 15, 1895, as part of Massey Hall’s inaugural season. The Choir, now in its 125th season, continues to present its own annual series of subscription concerts in addition to making regular appearances with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. From Christmas 1932 to 1967, Messiah was a TMC presentation with the TSO as guest artists. From Christmas 1968 on, the TSO has presented Messiah with the TMC as guest artists.

The choristers of the TMC include a core of professional singers, auditioned volunteers, and choral apprentices aged 17 to 22. As part of its mission to champion choral music in Canada, the Choir supports emerging conductors through its Associate Conductor program, and Canadian composers through its annual Choral Composition Competition. For amateur choristers, the Choir hosts an annual series of choral workshops exploring a wide range of repertoire.

The TMC includes a core of 20 professional singers and 100+ auditioned and experienced volunteer choristers. The TMC organization also includes the Mendelssohn Singers, a 70-voice ensemble formed from the ranks of the TMC, giving us more flexibility in both performing venue and repertoire.

Since 2012, the TMC has made many of its performances accessible through international concert webcasts. See tmchoir.org for more information on all TMC programs. The Choir is producing online multi-disciplinary programs during the pandemic.

Choristers for these Toronto Symphony Orchestra performances:


Catherine Alberti
Tia Andriani
Ann-Marie Barrett-Tandy
Victoria Betts
Lesley Emma Bouza *
Leslie Bradshaw
Marlo Burks
Joanne Chapin *
Amy Chen
Laureen Choi
Katy Clark *
Arushi Das
Emily Dotzlaw
Leslie Finlay
Kaveri Gandhi
Rebecca Genge *
Julia A. Goss
Pat M. Irwin
Christine Kerr
Alysha Ladha
Claire Luc
Marlene Lynds
Teresa Mahon *
Sachiko Marshall
Cathy Minnaar
Camila Mussa
Emily Parker *
Ariane Prescott
Alison Price
Sylvia Romanowska
Heather Rowe
Roxana Samson
MerryAnne Stuart *
Joanne Tang
Jennie Worden
Sophya Yumakulov


Jane Agosta
Marlo Alcock
Renée Ardiente
Julia Barber *
Rebecca Claborn *
Kristin Crawford
Avis Devine
Adrienne Eastwood
Kirsten Fielding *
Kim Finkelstein
Manda Fischer
Gillian Grant
Ilone Harrison
Marilyn Isaac Stewart
Valarie Koziol
Hilary McCrimmon
Jennifer McGraw
Marcia Myers
Annie Odom
Pamela Psarianos
Marg Rappolt
Alison Roy *
Jan Szot
Halyna Troian
Jennifer Ujimoto
Emma Willemsma
Susan Worthington
Jessica Wright *
Virginia Wright
YuYang Wu
Mitzi Wolfe Zohar


Mitch Aldrich *
Rafael Avila
Samuel Broverman
Marcel d’Entremont *
Peter DeRoche
John Gladwell
Nicholas Gough *
Alejandro Guerrero
Valdis Jevtejevs *
Clement Kam
Francis Lam
Eric Lee
Nicholas Nicolaidis *
Steve Szmutni *
Christopher Wenman


Neil Aronoff *
Jeffrey Baker
Dan Bevan-Baker *
Tony Churchill
Steven Foster
Ronald Jewell
Kieran Kane *
Dennis Kwok
Joseph McGowan IV
Paul Oros *
Daniel Parkinson
David B. Powell
Edward Shafran
Chia-An (Victor) Tung
Isaiah Yankech
David Yung *

* Singer in the TMC Professional Core

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