We reached out to our four Messiah soloists to find out a bit more about them. Enjoy!
If you could meet one composer, living or dead, who would it be? What would you ask them?
SHEREZADE PANTHAKI: It’s probably an enormous cliché to say so, but if I were granted the good fortune of meeting only one composer, it would have to be Johann Sebastian Bach. I’d want to ask him if he ever heard his music performed in his lifetime the way he conceptualized it at its composition. We like to think in the modern era that our exhaustive research into early music historical performance practice has yielded a certain accepted finesse and method of performing this music, and sometimes I do wonder whether the composer might actually have been much less fussy than we are! I’d love to hear Bach’s thoughts on composing for voices verses instruments. His professional duties required him to compose soprano lines for his boy choir sopranos and altos, but I’d be curious to know whether he had the opportunity to hear a truly great female soloist, and whether he might have written differently for mature adult high voices. Most of all, I’d want to see him settle in at his favorite watering hole and enjoy his sense of humor — the scant documentation that we have from his time, particularly with regard to his not-so-subtle defiance of authority, makes me suspect that a certain sense of irreverence would have punctuated his often solemn exterior!
Were I granted additional wishes, I would love to meet the lesser known, scintillatingly brilliant composers Hildegard von Bingen (the 12th-century German Benedictine abbess and composer), Barbara Strozzi (the 17th-century Italian singer and composer), and Elisabeth Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (the 17th-/18th-century French harpsichordist extraordinaire and composer). I can scarcely imagine the hurdles they faced within the staunchly masculine field of Western classical composition, and I’d want to learn everything I could about how they overcame the hurdles of the patriarchy to bring their gorgeous music to light.
KRISZTINASZABÓ: Well, since I have been lucky enough to have performed with Tafelmusik in Messiah before, I have had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Handel, which is always a treat. I don’t remember what I asked him, but if memory serves me correctly, I seem to recall that he liked to share a celebratory schnapps with his singers pre-show. If I were to meet any other composer, I think I’d like to meet Mozart and just spend the day with him to see if all the rumours about his notorious behaviour were true!
CHARLES DANIELS: It’s always good to meet living composers, and they vary enormously in their approach to performers. But since meeting dead composers is impossible, that sounds more fun still, and since I like to concentrate on the music I’m doing at the time, Handel would be a wonderful one to talk to. In some ways, though he seems to have been rather a private man, his world view might seem today a little less forbidding than say, J.S. Bach’s — Bach was not afraid to flout assorted conventions when addressing his Musical Offering to Frederick the Great, not least the writing of encoded Lutheran morals and sermons into the piece, so firm was his faith and so unwavering was his view. With Handel of course one would have to speak German, Italian, and French as well as English to get the best out of him. I’d love to ask him about his dealings with singers — he used the most famous divas of his day: what they were like to work with, whether they did what he asked, which were the musicians and which the note merchants, how it had been in Rome, compared with London, etc, etc. Whether he would have had the patience for such questions I’ve little idea ... during his long period in London Handel took his seat at St George’s Hanover Square of a Sunday, and one of the things he liked there was that nobody ever troubled him about the details of his faith — in Rome and in Halle, perhaps he had felt more constrained.
DREW SANTINI: Beethoven — and I’d ask him for a cup of his homemade coffee.
Do you have a pre- or post-performance ritual?
SP: Since we often have to be at our best at 7:00 or 8:00 pm, I try to hibernate before performances in a way that helps me store up a burst of energy later in the day. I might take a quiet walk or work on some music I’m preparing for another project. Once it gets closer to show time, I focus on the piece at hand, and mentally visualize how I’d like the performance to go. After concerts, it usually takes me at least two or three hours to wind down from the exhilaration of making music with great colleagues. Using one’s own body as a resounding, vibrating instrument creates a feeling of great euphoria that we singers enjoy and treasure!
KS: I pride myself on being a fairly low-maintenance singer, so I don’t have a big pre-performance ritual per se. I do like to be at the theatre at least 45 minutes to an hour before the concert begins to shake off the worries of the day, get focused and grounded before I go out on stage. As for post-performance ritual, I would say I’m usually the fastest soloist to change and get out of the hall … I like to get home to bed as soon as I can!
CD: Not exactly a ritual, but I feel better about singing if I’ve had a reasonable amount of exercise earlier in the day. If I’ve recently travelled west, coffee, though enough water too, to counter its drying tendencies. Otherwise, moderation — enough but not too much food, the voice warmed up, but ideally not doing the concert after several hours of rehearsal (needs must, sometimes, though). Also not a ritual, but I do check certain technical aspects of the music I’m singing, every concert day, to be properly prepared.
Afterwards — well a relaxing drink with friends is good, though if the repertoire is fiendishly high and the tour gruelling, a more monastic existence may be needed. Messiah’s tessitura is reasonable, so moderation should be sufficient.
DS: I always triple-check that I have the all the right clothes with me. Once I showed up to a hall and had forgotten my shirt in the hotel room. The hotel was in a different city.
Do you have a favourite concert hall to sing in?
SP: I’ve been fortunate to sing in some gorgeous concert halls, sacred spaces, and architectural wonders — from Westminster Abbey, to Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York, to the Philharmonic Hall in St. Petersburg, to Suntory Hall in Tokyo, to mystical early medieval chapels in France and Germany — it’s almost impossible for me to settle on just one! The atmosphere and history buried within walls can often be a powerful musical inspiration.
KS: I have been lucky enough to sing in so many wonderful concert halls across the world. But Toronto has so many fantastic concert venues — Koerner Hall and Trinity St. Paul’s are definitely two of my favourites.
CD:Actually it’s more having lots of favourite halls. Each has its pleasure and its challenge. The more resonant, the harder you have to work to deliver text, but the more help the building gives you with breathing and sustaining. In a dryer hall, the text should be crystal clear, though you have to create more of the acoustics yourself.
I’m always delighted to come to Toronto, and working in Koerner Hall will be a big pleasure.
DS:There is this gorgeous hall in Haarlem (Netherlands) called the Philharmonie. I think it’s in perfect balance — it feels spacious but intimate, classic but comfortable, and the acoustic is great.
What is the most challenging aspect of singing Messiah for you?
SP: I’m fortunate to be able to perform Messiah fairly often, with a wide range of conductors and orchestras. I challenge myself to try to keep my music-making as fresh and nuanced as I can, within the boundaries of good performance practice. That can mean improvising new cadenzas for each set of performances, or varying the tempo and articulation in some of my arias. Every conductor has their own vision of each of my arias, and I love the challenge of adapting my long-held practices to a new musical idea. It amazes me that I hear something new in the music every single time I listen to Messiah. Sometimes it could be an interesting choral line that I never noticed before, or a particularly poignant inner line in the orchestra, or listening to a soloist colleague bring their particular brand of artistry to an oft-heard phrase. Messiah is a monument of the Western classical canon for a reason!
KS: Because Messiah is so deeply meaningful to so many people, so universally loved, each time I sing it my biggest challenge is doing it justice for the audience. And no matter how many times I’ve sung it, I want to keep it fresh musically and rooted in the beauty and meaning of the text.
CD: The same, I think, as with all music that I’ve sung often. It absolutely must stay fresh — not least because in every concert’s audience, there will be people for whom that will be the only time they hear the work, and they deserve the best rendition of it. So the mental position has to be to reinvent the piece constantly, as if this were the first time you were doing it. As it happens I also like to change the ornamentation each time, and refuse to let them settle into a groove!
DS: Resisting the urge to sing along during the soprano’s Rejoice.
Which part of Messiah do you especially look forward to?
SP: It’s incredibly hard to choose! Messiah’s many earworms have made it wildly popular among audiences and performers alike. In the first part, I love the imagery and the beautiful ascending line in the bass accompanied recitative “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth.” Who can fail to be set ablaze by the electric runs and leaps in the “refiner’s fire” section of “But who may abide.” The foreboding tenor aria “Thou shalt break them” is another favorite. Among Messiah’s many glorious choruses, I confess I am always caught with a lump in my throat by the very last few bars of the final “Amen,” when the choral soprano line ecstatically lands on a high A, putting the brakes on this rich fugue and leading the piece to its thunderously thrilling conclusion.
KS: All of the choruses, of course!
CD: That varies a little from concert to concert. But I’ll pick out a few marvellous corners — and first a note: Handel seems to have associated the key of E Major with a comforting, spiritual sense, which is reflected beautifully at the start in “Comfort ye” and in the third part, with “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”
So, some special moments: the way the chorus erupts into “Glory to God,” with the distant trumpets, after the soprano announces the “multitude of the heavenly host’”; the warmth of “He shall feed his flock”; the energy of “Why do the Nations”; and the glorious resolution of the final “Amen” chorus.
DS: I always find the tenor recitative “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart” to be an especially poignant moment.
How many times have you sung Messiah? What was your first ever performance?
SP: I’ve lost count! I think I must be up to at least 120 performances, if not more. My earliest performance as a soloist for the entire work was with our wonderful local Bach Society during my graduate degree at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Quite possibly the most out-of-the-box performance I’ve done was a fully-staged performance of Messiah at a theater in Georgetown (Washington D.C.), in which the staging required me to wear an angel costume with enormous wings wider than the span of my arms, climb up a ladder, and sing the demanding coloratura aria “Rejoice greatly” standing on my toes. Since then, I’ve never failed to appreciate being able to sing the piece with both feet firmly on the ground!
KS: I realized last year that Handel’s Messiah is the musical work I have sung most often in my life. I really don’t think I could count how many Messiah’s I’ve sung — I did start to keep track at some point, but there are many years I didn’t count. As for my first-ever performance as a soloist, I believe it was with the Guelph Chamber Choir in 1995. But “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” was the very first thing I sang in my very first studio masterclass (with my teacher, Darryl Edwards) at the University of Western Ontario, and I remember very well how that piece made me feel so uplifted — and it still does to this very day!
CD: Good question ... surely in triple digits but whether, say, 200, or what, I’m not quite sure. There is no cane into which I cut a notch per show …
The first Messiah’s I took part in were in 1971 as a treble in the choir of King’s College Cambridge. We then recorded it: I think that was in a freezing Ely Cathedral just before Christmas — no heating that I recall. As a tenor I sang (unpaid, of course) “Comfort ye” and “Every Valley” first for the wedding of some cousins a few years later. At fifteen, the rendition must have been a little callow. And of course it was not the whole piece — though around then we did Messiah in the school choral society. I was trying to be too much of the tenor section, since there were almost none of us, compared with basses and sopranos, and we few would all end up rather hoarse afterwards.
The solo concerts started when I was a postgrad student at the Royal College of Music. They would send their senior students out to assorted, usually fairly small Choral Societies. It was impressive that even village choirs knew the music tremendously well. The latest — ah, not most recent, but most delayed — was with Paul McCreesh on a Spanish tour in the 1990s. There was a strike: we were stuck in Madrid airport and couldn’t make our second flight. We finally took off after the concert was supposed to have begun, but the audience, bless them, waited for us and we began nearly two hours late. Paul’s lively tempi ensured we finished earlier than some might have predicted!
DS: I’ve sung Messiah about eight times. My first ever performance was with the International Symphony Orchestra (Sarnia, ON & Port Huron, MI) while I was an undergrad student.
Image credits: Sherezade Panthaki by David Fung. Krisztina Szabó by Bo Huang. Charles Daniels by Annelies van der Vegt. Drew Santini by Ana van Leeuwen.