Get to know the Messiah Soloists

Joining us in this season’s Handel Messiah is a stellar line-up of soloists: soprano Joanne Lunn, countertenor James Laing, tenor Rufus Müller, and baritone Brett Polegato. We sat down with our four soloists to find out a bit more about them. Enjoy!

How did you come to decide to sing?

Joanne Lunn, soprano

Joanne Lunn, soprano: I have always loved singing: I believe I used to drive my brother crazy when we were children by constantly singing. I joined the church choir as soon as they would have me. I can vividly remember that I would stand up and sing my heart out in the final hymn on a Sunday when the choir processed by, hoping someone would hear and say I could join!

 James Laing, countertenor: I had always enjoyed classical music and ended up singing in the bass section in my school choir. There was a time when lots of the trebles voices broke and suddenly the bass row was overflowing. However, there was a space beckoning amongst the ladies on the alto row …

Rufus Müller, tenor: Apparently I sang before I could talk. But when it came to deciding if I could sing professionally, when I sang as a student in the Tallis Scholars, I asked a couple of my professional colleagues in the ensemble if I had a chance of making a living in London. Countertenor Michael Chance simply laughed and said, “Don’t be ridiculous!” I took that to be a “Yes.”

Brett Polegato, baritone: In school, I was somewhat of a math geek. I was also involved in many in-school instrumental ensembles (I played oboe and tenor saxophone) and after-school choirs. I was offered a full scholarship to Waterloo for Computer Science and to the University of Toronto for Vocal Performance. I chose music with the thought that, if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to math. Thirty years later, I’m still singing!

 

What was your first music gig?

Joanne: I won a competition that the BBC ran when I was young called “Choirgirl of the Year.” That year-long experience of concerts, radio broadcasts, and recording sessions really made me decide that I might just be able to give singing a go.

James Laing, countertenor

James: My first solo gig was performing “Come ye sons of art” by Purcell at a small church in … errr … Buckinghamshire? There is a wonderful countertenor duet within the piece, “Sound the trumpet,” and my partner on this occasion was one of my heroes, James Bowman. Talk about pressure: the grandfather of countertenors and the upstart whippersnapper!

Rufus: My first paid gig was while I was at university, singing the baritone (yes, baritone!) solos in Duruflé’s Requiem for a local choral society. I think I got £20.

Brett: My first professional gig was singing Figaro for Opera Atelier in their production of The Marriage of Figaro. Conductor Marc Minkowski was making his North America debut, and Tafelmusik was in the pit. In fact, I left an opera diploma program to accept this gig. Not a bad way for a 24-year-old to start!

 

What is your “guilty pleasure” music to listen to?

Joanne: I listen to a wide variety of music ranging from medieval right up to music from the charts, courtesy of my children!

James: Oooh, tough one but you can’t go wrong with a bit of Dolly Parton.

Rufus: The Carpenters! Karen Carpenter’s voice was one of the most creamy, sensuous voices in the pop world — ever. And her fight to the death with anorexia gives a plangent edge to everything she sang.

Brett: Broadway recordings. I can’t get enough showtunes!

 

What is your favourite thing to do on a day off?

Joanne: Walking along the white cliffs in Kent on a sunny day near where we holiday regularly, with a hearty meal at the pub halfway of course!

James: Spend time with my family — my wife certainly appreciates being able to offload our four children on me!

Rufus: In the summer, going to the beach. In the winter, daydreaming about being on the beach.

Brett: Read. I’m an avid reader and a collector of first-edition, signed books.

 

What is the most challenging aspect of singing Messiah for you?

Joanne: I love singing Messiah! It is my challenge after having sung it so many times to keep it fresh, as if it were the first time I had ever sung it: for myself, for the audience, and most importantly for the sake of the message it tells.

James: The challenge for me is trying to get an audience to not just “listen”’ to the piece, but to really engage with it. A difficult thing to do with such a well-known work.

Rufus Müller, tenor

Rufus: Remembering my words in the alto-tenor duet near the end: “Oh death”? or “Oh grave”? On one occasion I sang: “The sin of death is Sting.” Oh, no! Now I’m going to be nervous about it in Toronto — why did I agree to answer these questions!!

Brett: Each bass aria requires a different weight, colour, and articulation. I work hard at trying to fulfil the impossible demands of each while balancing the set as a whole. It’s fortunate for me as a baritone that the tessitura gets progressively higher as the evening goes on, so I can “warm up” into them. At the final aria, “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” when many basses are ready to call it a night, I’m ready to raise the roof!

What Messiah part do you especially look forward to?

James: Funnily enough, my favourite part is non-vocal: the Pifa orchestral interlude which introduces the shepherds. I love the translucent quality you get from the strings and the way that every section has an intertwining voice. Simple and beautiful.

Brett Polegato, baritone

Brett: Every year, I look forward to the response from the audience. Robert Shaw used to say to his choristers before a performance: “Remember, there is someone here tonight who’s hearing this piece for the first time. And someone here who’s hearing it for the last time.” I think of this particularly when I perform Messiah, which for so many audience members is an annual tradition. I ask myself: who will NOT be here next year to hear this? It reminds me to make each performance count.

Join Joanne, James, Rufus, Brett and Tafelmusik Orchestra and Choir for Handel Messiah at Koerner Hall, Dec 13—16, 2017. Tickets available here.

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Handel’s Messiah still resonates today

By Ivars Taurins, Director, Chamber Choir

Ivars Taurins, Director, Chamber Choir. Photo by Sian Richards
Ivars Taurins, Director

Why does an oratorio written in 18th-century England by a German composer still resonate so strongly to so many in this day and age? “Behold – I tell you a mystery…”

Why has “Hallelujah” struck a chord with people of all walks of life, whether it is Handel’s or Leonard Cohen’s? From an Inuit community in Alaska and a congregation in Kuwait singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, to the hundreds of cover versions and arrangements of Cohen’s song.

And why does Handel’s Messiah touch people of different backgrounds, faiths, and cultures? The universality of this work, beyond its remarkable, moving, and uplifting music, lies, I think, in its message of “Peace on earth, good will towards men,” and its themes of enlightenment and understanding, hope and faith, humanity and good will, sacrifice and charity – these are important values that we esteem and strive for, even in our secular world. And the triumph of these over suffering, injustice, selfishness, or man’s inhumanity to man – these are to be found in Handel’s masterpiece.  I believe that Messiah, like other great musical compositions, opens in us a spirituality, whether one belongs to a faith or not. It also offers solace – an oasis away from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. And as such it has become an annual ritual for many.

Portrait of Handel

Messiah joins the ranks of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, or school and church nativity plays, or a holiday dinner with family and friends – all are rituals that are part of the private and public recognition of this special time of year – a time for giving and of thanksgiving. And a little ritual and mystery in our lives isn’t such a bad thing.

But something else – and perhaps therein lies the mystery – something about this work and its music and its message has touched more than the English-speaking world with its power and essence, allowing it to remain meaningful and vital to this day. And to that I say Hallelujah!


Join Ivars Taurins and Tafelmusik Chamber Choir for Handel Messiah from December 13–16, 2017 at Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre.

Get to know the Messiah soloists

Our Messiah and Sing-Along Messiah concerts will feature an amazing cast of soloists with soprano Amanda Forsythe and mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó making their Tafelmusik debut, and Tafelmusik favourites tenor Colin Balzer, and baritone Tyler Duncan. We sent them a few questions and here is what they had to say:

Amanda Forsythe (soprano), Krisztina Szabó (mezzo-soprano), Colin Balzer (tenor), and Tyler Duncan (baritone)
Amanda Forsythe (soprano), Krisztina Szabó (mezzo-soprano), Colin Balzer (tenor), and Tyler Duncan (baritone)

How did you come to decide to sing?

Amanda Forsythe
Amanda Forsythe

Amanda Forsythe: I’ve enjoyed singing since I was a child, when I sang in choirs and local theatrical productions. I studied voice and piano in high school, and began college as a biology major with a strong interest in music. It turns out I was better at singing than science!

Krisztina Szabó: I started singing as a child, spending six years in the Toronto Children’s Chorus, and loved it, but never considered it a “career choice” when deciding what to major in at university.  So, I entered the University of Western Ontario with aspirations of being a music teacher, as a piano major. But I wanted to keep singing, so I started taking voice lessons on the side with Dr. Darryl Edwards, who now teaches at the University of Toronto. The more I sang, the more I loved it—it felt natural, like the truest expression of who I am. Then I got a couple of roles—in the Gilbert & Sullivan Society, as well as the opera that the university put on, and I caught the performing bug. So, I ditched the Education track and decided to pursue post-graduate programs in Voice Performance … and the rest is history.

Colin Balzer: When I entered grade 11, I had the good fortune to have a choir director who had just returned from finishing his masters in conducting. He was burning with inspiration and ideas, and it was contagious. Up until then I had never sung in a choir but had played various instruments. Under his direction and encouragement, I began to realize that I might have more to say musically as a vocalist than an instrumentalist.

Tyler Duncan: When I was little I would make up songs while playing with Lego. My Nana, who was a big fan of Sibelius, noticed that I made up some lovely songs and was usually in tune. She suggested I join a choir. From then on, there really wasn’t much else in life that I wanted to do.

What was your first music gig?

AF: My first paid job was singing backup vocals to Joey Lawrence on a Romper Room record when I was eight years old. I got $40 for that gig!

KS: My first paid music gig ever was as soloist/section leader for a church choir in London while going to school. But my “big break” was being accepted into the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio programme. My first role at the COC was playing “Clothilde” in Norma. At the time, everyone kept telling me that it was Joan Sutherland’s first role, too … no pressure there!

CB: Oddly enough, my first professional job as a soloist was a Sing-along Messiah with a community choir in Fort Langley, BC.

TD: Playing trombone in a Brass Quintet. We played Christmas carols in Victoria BC. We were TERRIBLE. My first professional singing gig was Monteverdi madrigals for Early Music Vancouver. Colin Balzer was the tenor soloist.  It is wonderful that we are still singing together a couple of decades later.

What is your “guilty pleasure” music to listen to?

AF: I really enjoy listening to Broadway musicals, and my 6-year-old is keeping me current on today’s pop music.

KS: Some of my friends make fun of me, but I listen to pop music—the latest hits—and can sing along with most of the songs on the radio. I listen until the fact that they are mindless and repetitive starts to get to me, at which point I put on CBC Radio.

Colin Balzer
Colin Balzer

CB: Take 6. I finally had the opportunity to hear them live after being a fan for many years. They are as stunning live as they are on their recordings.

TD: Jazz, funk, and (intelligent) rap music.

What are the last three recordings you’ve listened to?

AF: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Handel’s Aci e Galatea, and Alison Krauss singing I’ll Fly Away.

KS: Well, I was preparing for a concert, so I was listening to a Hungarian singer, Magda Kalmár, singing some Lehár operetta. Also, Katalin Karády singing some ‘50s Hungarian lounge music.

CB: Nature Boy, Lucky Luke, and Bad (sung by The Real Group, live from Japan)

TD: The Rainbow Connection, The Bare Necessities, and the theme song from Paw Patrol — I have a toddler …

Krisztina Szabó
Krisztina Szabó

What is your favourite thing to do on a day off?

AF: I’ve got two small boys at home, so there aren’t really any “days off.”  When I’m travelling without them, I enjoy being a tourist in new cities and catching up on reading.

KS: Sleep and Netflix. And sleep. And more Netflix. And then sleep again.

CB: Living in Germany, the opportunity to see a movie without subtitles or overdubbing is sometimes hard to pass up. I also love finding local independent coffee roasters and cafés.

TD: Spend time with my son: he is very cute.

What is the most challenging aspect of singing Messiah for you?  

AF: Technically, “Rejoice greatly” is the only tricky piece for soprano—the rest is just about spinning your most gorgeous sound and connecting with the moving texts. But every conductor likes to allocate the arias differently, and sometimes you get to sing something new—this year I get to take a crack at the arioso “Behold and see,” which is a first for me!

KS: For me, “But who may abide” is the most challenging aria of the night, because of where the coloratura lies. It’s a great aria and I want to do it justice!

CB: The challenge (which I love) is to try and make it fresh every time. Can I go deeper into the text? Does a particular ornament still make sense both musically and rhetorically? My interpretation needs to be a living, breathing, and growing thing, to leave no room for auto pilot or routine.

TD: Trying not to sing along with the choir the whole time! The most wonderful challenging aspect is keeping the music fresh each year, not relying on the way it was sung last season, but finding new things in the music to bring out.

What Messiah part do you especially look forward to?

Tyler Duncan
Tyler Duncan

AF: I love the silence just before the final two “amens,” after you’ve been somewhat hypnotized by the extended “Amen” fugue. It always comes as a shock.

KS: It may sound cliché, but I absolutely love when the “Hallelujah” chorus is sung, particularly when the soloists and audience get to join in the fun. There is nothing quite like a room full of people raising their voices together singing that chorus!

CB: I always love the passion sequence of recitatives and arias. It’s a huge turning point in the piece. This is the Messiah at its most serious, its most accusatory, until that wonderful moment where the music and text shifts to “But thou didst not leave his soul in hell.” From there on out it’s a wonderful and celebratory rising action that continues to gain momentum right up until the end of the piece.

TD: The viola part.


Hear our wonderful guest soloists perform in Messiah at Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre, from Dec 14-17, 2016. Tickets are available here. Join in the singing at the 30th anniversary of Sing-Along Messiah at Massey Hall, Dec 18.

Behind the Musik: Messiah 101

Here are the official program notes for Handel Messiah

Download the Program Notes | Download the Program Listing

Directed by Ivars Taurins
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir
Featuring Amanda Forsythe (soprano), Krisztina Szabó (mezzo-soprano), Colin Balzer (tenor) and Tyler Duncan (baritone).

Dec 14-17, 2016, Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning

Handel composed Messiah in just a few weeks in the late summer of 1741. Intended originally for performances at Easter, it was premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742 at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street. Handel directed the performance, and attendance was so great that ladies were implored “not to come with hoops” and gentlemen to leave their swords at home to make “room for more company.” Praise resounded for both the work and its performance, and an extra performance was added. It took a few years for the work to take hold in London, as some were disturbed by the idea of presenting such a sacred work in the theatre, but by the time of Handel’s death in 1759 it had become the most frequently performed of all his oratorios, a position it has never relinquished.

Messiah eventually came to be associated with the Christmas season, and the wealth and variety of choruses in the work inspired amateur choirs to embrace it in communities large and small. In recent decades it has become common to trim the work, but for our concert performances, we are pleased to present the entire oratorio.

As specialists in period performance, we perform on instruments from the eighteenth century (or accurate reproductions), and retain Handel’s original orchestration. The orchestration is in fact quite modest for a work of such great impact: the arias are performed by strings alone, with the violinists often playing in unison, and oboes joining in the choruses. Bassoon and keyboard instruments round out the bass section. Arguably the most important instruments on stage are those that play at only a few key dramatic moments: the trumpets and timpani. Handel has trumpets playing briefly “from a distance” as part of the “heavenly host” in the nativity sequence in Part I. He holds off until the “Hallelujah” chorus at the end of Part II to have trumpets and timpani join the orchestra. The glorious trumpet solo in “The trumpet shall sound” carries us to the final resounding “Worthy is the Lamb” and “Amen.” Handel understood drama and the power of music to stir the human soul, and structured the score of Messiah accordingly. Each performance is a journey, and this is a journey we are honoured to share with you each year.

unknown%2cvalentinesnow%28possibly%29%2cc1753%2cfentonhouseValentine Snow was Serjeant-Trumpeter to King George II & III, and was Handel’s trumpeter for his Messiah performances. The baroque trumpet features a bell connected to a long tube of brass, about two meters in length, on the end of which is placed a mouthpiece. There are no valves: the player alters pitch through minute changes of lip pressure and air speed. To play a solo like “The trumpet shall sound,” the player plays in the uppermost register or “clarino” register, a skill that requires years of practice!

David Campion, timpani. Photo: Peter Laenger
David Campion, timpani. Photo: Peter Laenger

 
The timpani played by David Campion are reproductions of eighteenth-century instruments. The natural-skin heads are sensitive to shifts in temperature and humidity, so you will David quietly touching up the tuning before he plays, with his head close to the drums. Tuning is done by turning the series of screws that circle the drum head.

© Tafelmusik 2016

The Libretto for Handel Messiah can be found here.


Join us for Tafelmusik’s Original Messiah at Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre from Dec 14-17, 2016. Tickets are available here.