Many professional singers around the world—from Tokyo to Toronto—have an annual date with Handel’s oratorio Messiah and have stories to tell. To help get you in the mood for the festive season, we’ve invited our four guest soloists to share their emotions and experiences around Handel’s Yuletide favourite from their own unique perspectives. Meet Rachel Redmond, soprano; Cameron Shahbazi, countertenor; James Reese, tenor; and Enrico Lagasca, bass-baritone.
When did you sing your first Messiah?
Rachel Redmond: As a teenager; I think I was around 14. We shared the solos and we all sang the choruses. It was with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Junior Chorus and none of the boys’ voices had broken, so I sang the tenor solo “Comfort ye my people.” Every time I hear it I’m still a bit jealous that I don’t get to sing it now.
Cameron Shahbazi: Believe it or not, I will be singing my first Messiah with Tafelmusik.
James Reese: My first full Messiah (apart from the occasional church choir “Hallelujah”) was in 2015; I sang in the chorus for The Philadelphia Orchestra’s performances under Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the Kimmel Center in my hometown, Philly. I’d recently graduated with my bachelor’s degree and the whole experience was thrilling. Karina Gauvin and Matthew Rose were among the soloists. I remember thinking how incredible they were and that I’d love to share the stage in that way at some point in my career. I feel so blessed that I get to do so now.
Enrico Lagasca: I sang my first Messiah when I first moved to New York in 2008 as a chorister at Carnegie Hall.
I’m sure you’ve sung your fair share of Messiah performances over time! As Messiah season approaches, what do you most look forward to each year?
Rachel Redmond: I love hearing new interpretations! I’m really looking forward to this year as I haven’t performed with any of these singers or players before so everything will feel new!
James Reese: I truly love singing the opening phrases of “Comfort ye.” No matter how many performances of Messiah I do, I am reminded each and every time of the unique gift Handel gave the tenor in the score: an opportunity to create an intimate and welcoming space for the gathered audience.
Enrico Lagasca: Every Messiah performance has a different set of artists and community: I look forward to getting to know my fellow musicians onstage and creating this performance together with the audience. Putting together such a monumental work is always an exciting experience!
What’s your favourite Messiah chorus and why?
Rachel Redmond: “All we, like sheep,” every time. It goes from the silly to the sublime and the end is just heartbreakingly exquisite.
Cameron Shahbazi: “Since by man came death”—this chorus has equal amounts of exquisite purity and drama.
James Reese: I can’t choose, so I’ll offer two. As a listener and as a lover of the narrative, I find “He trusted in God” to be so epic. It is a full-blown Passion turba chorus—the drama! But, the choir kid in my heart of hearts says that “All we, like sheep” will always be the most fun.
Enrico Lagasca: “Worthy is the Lamb” and the exhilarating “Amen” fugue are my favourites as they are the culmination of the work, reinforcing the affirmation and finality of this three-part story.
What’s your favourite Messiah aria and why?
Rachel Redmond: This changes every year … I can let you know in a few weeks. Last year it was “If God be for us, who can be against us.” It’s so intimate and unexpected at the end of the work, when you expect everything to be loud and triumphant.
Cameron Shahbazi: “Comfort ye my people,” the recitative sung by the tenor at the opening of the oratorio, is one of my favourite musical moments of the piece.
James Reese: “I know that my redeemer liveth.” In my mind it’s a perfect Handel aria—the gorgeous vocal lines, the earnestness of the text, and the gentle lilt of the strings and pedal bass as we approach sleeping death. I particularly love the middle section for its juxtaposition of a truly vile notion (worms decomposing our earthly body) with the most assured, sublime music.
Enrico Lagasca: The soprano aria “I know that my redeemer liveth” remains my favourite—it moves and captivates me. To me, its simplicity, consoling musical gestures, and the accompanying text perfectly capture the hope and promise of redemption. I also find it special that amid all the big choruses and arias, it recentres me and brings me back to intimacy and personal reflection.
What’s the most remarkable thing that has ever happened during a performance of Messiah?
Rachel Redmond: Four years ago I did around twelve Messiah concerts when I was seven or eight months pregnant and every time the trumpets and timpani played my baby started dancing and kicking. That was really funny. She still loves Messiah and she seems to remember it.
Cameron Shahbazi: I’ll have to get back to you on that one!
James Reese: A friend of mine—extremely jet-lagged after returning from another concert in Europe—took a nice, if accidental, nap during Part II onstage (warm stage lights + jet lag is a bad combination!). At the “Hallelujah” chorus they were jolted awake and bolted to their feet, only fifteen seconds after everyone else stood up.
Enrico Lagasca: Mine is remarkable in a way that was personally very meaningful..This piece is rarely performed in its entirety in my home in the Philippines. After decades, Messiah was finally performed in full and when that happened again in 2022, with my childhood mentor as conductor and me as one of the soloists, it gave me a sense of homecoming and fulfillment. No words can describe seeing and hearing a stage of about 300 performers, mostly friends, exploring this work—what joy and celebration!
What makes Messiah so enduring and universally appealing?
Rachel Redmond: I think it’s the sheer amount of moods and emotions in the music and text. It’s impossible not to be caught up in the flurry of feelings.
Cameron Shabazi: Handel’s Messiah endures for its masterful composition, blending emotive melodies with profound text, creating a timeless and universally resonant oratorio. Its ability to evoke both the grandeur of the baroque era and the timeless themes of hope and redemption contributes to its enduring appeal across generations and cultures.
James Reese: Any performance of Messiah brings with it a huge history, both on an individual level and culturally. This time of year is one during which we observe centuries of tradition, and Messiah is one of them. For me, Messiah has strong associations with beloved family, friends, and colleagues, and marks a season in which we all might feel more inspired, generous, and kind.
Enrico Lagasca: I think what makes Handel’s Messiah especially universal is that it is a true testament to what community is: that all the artists and the audience contribute to the experience of performing and listening, sharing this poignant and exuberant story of life, death, and resurrection that transcends religious and cultural boundaries. The music is timeless and resonates for many. It is exciting, vibrant, and intimate all at once.
Experience Handel Messiah December 14-16, 2023 at Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning. Tickets available at tafelmusik.org/messiah