George Frederick Handel will not be making an appearance in Vancouver this winter. Nor will he grace the stage in West Vancouver or Maple Ridge. But when Ivars Taurins joins the Pacific Baroque Orchestra and the Vancouver Cantata Singers for three local performances of the great German composer’s Messiah, he’ll bring with him the knowledge gleaned from being Handel for 34 years running.
As choir director of Toronto’s pioneering Tafelmusik ensemble, Taurins is undeniably one of the gods of early music in Canada. And in that role he’s presented annual sing-along Messiah concerts in which he takes to the stage in a towering powdered wig and full 18th-century regalia, leading audience and band in a close approximation of the work’s 1742 debut.
But there’s more to these perennially sold-out events than a bit of theatre and a fundraising opportunity. Taking on the role of Handel himself, Taurins explains in a telephone interview from his Toronto home, is a natural outgrowth of the “historically informed performance” aesthetic that has fuelled the rebirth of early music for the past several decades.
In fact, Taurins might have taken that notion further than any other musician. Not only has he embodied Handel for some 220 costumed performances of Messiah (plus many more in mufti), he made the billowing shirt, formfitting breeches, and elaborately buttoned and braided coat that allow him to effect that transformation.
For Tafelmusik’s first costumed performances, Taurins borrowed his garb from the Canadian Opera Company. “It would be something that looked great from two miles away, right?” he says. “But because of my sense of authenticity, I said, ‘No, I want to have something that really speaks to me in terms of what Handel wore, and how it would look.’ My father, in his teens, was a tailor’s apprentice, and he passed on his knowledge of tailoring to me, and so I was able to then use that to create the costume. I started with the shirt, and then I went to the vest, so it was done in stages, and I also used 18th-century construction techniques. So the shirt, for instance, is entirely done by hand. There’s not a sewing machine around.”
For some, this dedication to authenticity might seem excessive. But Taurins points out that 18th-century formal attire was designed to help its wearers cut an elegant figure at the expense of upper-body mobility. Feeling the same limitations that Handel felt when he was conducting, he argues, helps him to understand how the music was originally heard—even when leading untheatricalized and nonparticipatory renditions of Messiah, as he will do at his three Lower Mainland appearances.
“When you put on a period costume, you have to stand differently,” he says. “You react differently in terms of your movements, and it helps magnify the character that you’re portraying. So becoming Mr. Handel has been a wonderful journey, fed by my interest in period costume.”
Taurins has also taken a scholarly interest in how and why Messiah came to be. He backs up the legend of the lengthy work’s hurried genesis; having examined the manuscript, he confirms that it was, in fact, the product of a few days’ white-hot inspiration.
“You can see it,” he says. “He couldn’t write down the notes fast enough. When you see his manuscript, the musical ideas are just flowing forth. So it was this massive undertaking, hardly eating or sleeping, and then it was done.”
The conductor also points out that there was more to this blaze of energy than Handel’s need to fill a year’s worth of concerts at Dublin’s Great Music Hall. Somewhat lost in Messiah’s modern-day status as a seasonal favourite is that it was also a piece of religious propaganda, hotly espousing one side of an argument that was raging in the theological circles of the time.
This, admittedly, has as much to do with Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens, as with the composer’s own beliefs.
“The interesting part of it [the libretto] is that it isn’t taken from the New Testament, so it isn’t one of the Gospels. It isn’t St. Matthew or St. John,” Taurins says. “Jennens tells the story of the life of Christ obliquely, through Old Testament scripture. And what he’s doing here is countering a movement that was raising its head in England, called deism. And the deists didn’t believe in the idea of prophecy and revelation.
“They thought it was all hocus-pocus, this idea that you could prophesize something decades or centuries before it would happen,” he continues. “They said this is all too Catholic, too popish, and they were against it. And this worried the Anglican Church, so you had this whole antideist movement as well, and Jennens was part of that. So he used the libretto to prove a point. ‘You want to see proof of prophecy? Here’s a prophecy from the Old Testament, and here’s what happens in the life of Christ to prove it was a revelation.’ And he, of course, wanted to have the best composer to put forward this argument.”
That Jennens chose well is evident in the fact that, centuries after the deists and their opponents have been forgotten by everyone except religious scholars and Handel specialists, Messiah continues to speak to large and enthusiastic audiences. Taurins has no doubt about why.
“Even though it is a specifically Christian story about the life of Christ, the message that it gives us through its words is universal,” he says. “Everyone comes away from Messiah saying ‘This has been a cathartic experience.’ And I think that is a tribute not only to Charles Jennens’s very, very careful use of Scripture to present a contemporary message—whether contemporary in his day or ours. And for me, the overarching thing is the message we hear during the Nativity, when the angels come down to the shepherds: ‘Peace on earth; goodwill towards all men.’ ”
Early Music Vancouver presents Ivars Taurins with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra and the Vancouver Cantata Singers at the Kay Meek Centre on Friday (November 29), the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (November 30), and the ACT Centre in Maple Ridge on Sunday (December 1).