Vancouver Bach Choir's Messiah shines the spotlight on young stars

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George Frederick Handel’s Messiah is 272 years old, but the Vancouver Bach Choir is bringing something new to its upcoming production of the seasonal classic. In fact, you can make that four new things, in the form of its four vocal soloists. Soprano Rachel Fenlon, mezzo Sylvia Szadovszki, tenor Martin Sadd, and baritone Aaron Durand aren’t exactly strangers to Vancouver audiences, but the general consensus is that they’re all young singers on the verge of a glittering future, and this Messiah is a chance to hear them shine before they’re swept onto the international stage.

It’s an opportunity that Fenlon, at least, is eager to grasp.

“It’s an amazing piece of music,” she says, on the line from the West End apartment where she’s staying between out-of-town engagements. “I feel that it has everything. I feel like it has the acrobatic vocal fireworks, and it has these amazing, jaw-dropping, long, lyrical melodies, and somehow it all comes together and it tells this incredible story. I think that’s why it touches so many people, and why it’s timeless.”

The soprano hasn’t always been a fan. “I didn’t grow up with the Messiah being played in my house or anything,” she stresses. “But I discovered it in first year in the university choir at UBC. I really will never forget the first read-through, and just being completely stunned by the work. I was captivated from beginning to end.”

What makes this Bach Choir production even more special is that it illustrates the links between four of the most important classical music organizations in our city. Some of the players are more closely connected than others: the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, for example, will provide the instrumental support for this Messiah, as is usually the case when the Bach Choir mounts a major undertaking. But the UBC music department plays a role, too: Fenlon, Szadovszki, Sadd, and Durand are all graduates of its opera program. It was there that they came to the attention of Vancouver Opera chorus director Leslie Dala, who was scouting prospects for the inaugural year of the company’s Young Artists Program, a sort of finishing school for emerging operatic stars. He was so impressed that he enrolled them all.

“For the first year we wanted to have the best odds of having a successful program,” Dala explains, in a separate telephone interview from his home. “So these were really excellent singers, but also people whose work we knew a little bit. And I think they had a great time last year: they were all given main-stage opportunities and major understudy roles, as well as some concert and recital work.

“As the year was winding down I thought, ‘It would be great to have the four of them back to do something different,’” he adds—and in the context of his other job, as the Bach Choir’s music director, that’s exactly what he’s done. “They were all available, which I was very happy about.”

Asked what his four young soloists will bring to Handel’s well-worn charts, Dala suggests that “a kind of freshness” will likely be their major contribution. “And I think a kind of enthusiasm, as well,” he continues. “Not to say that people who have sung it many, many times aren’t enthusiastic, but I think they’ll bring a genuine sort of excitement. Again, it’s a high-stakes sort of Messiah, if I may say that. It’s at the Orpheum, and it’s with the VSO, and it’s with a large choir, and it’s a rather highly publicized performance as far as Messiahs in this city go. So I think there’s a kind of cachet with that.”

Fenlon doesn’t disagree, but thinks Handel’s choral masterpiece has enough cachet of its own to attract a crowd.

“I have lots of friends who aren’t in the arts at all, and for them classical music is often about them just not knowing what to expect, or whether it’s worth their time,” she says. “But I sang this work last year with the Victoria Symphony, and I had tons of people come out that don’t ever listen to classical music by choice, except when I make them—and they were all just absolutely enthralled, three hours later. They really were!” 

The Vancouver Bach Choir presents George Frederick Handel’s Messiah at the Orpheum on Saturday (December 14).

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