The Peterborough Singers’ annual performances of Handel’s Messiah have always blended the talents of outstanding musicians and soloists — from near and far. This year is no exception. Performing on December 14 is soprano Pamela Birrell. Born and raised in Peterborough, Pam has been “enriching the hearts of listeners” ever since. The next night, December 15, Leslie Fagan sings the soprano role. Leslie, whose voice has been called “nothing short of astonishing,” had her official Carnegie Hall debut in December 2007, when she was invited to sing in performances of—you guessed it!— Handel’s Messiah.
Leslie Fagan continues to perform on national and international stages, delighting her audiences and critics. She’s sung at Roy Thomson Hall, Massey Hall, the Bordeaux Opera House, Royal Albert Hall, and the Lincoln Center. She also performs regularly with the Peterborough Singers, most recently in the choir’s May 2009 concert, which was scheduled directly after her debut at the Lincoln Center. They like her in New York; she has return engagements to both the Lincoln Center (Brahms’s Requiem) and Carnegie Hall (Handel’s Messiah). Allan Kozinn, music critic for The New York Times, praised both her 2007 and 2008 NYC Messiah performances. “She gave ‘How Beautiful Are the Feet of Them’ and ‘I Know That My Redeemer Liveth’ the dignified grace they require,” he wrote. He also admired her “adventurous” embellishments, stating that her singing “had transcendent moments.”
As much as New York likes Leslie, she likes Peterborough. “It’s familiar, it’s welcoming and friendly. It’s a coming-home atmosphere.” She also has strong connections with members of the Peterborough Singers. “I know many of the people in the organization who are dear friends,” she explains.
Pamela Birrell is one of those “dear friends,” and a talented soloist in her own right. Her ability to communicate the profoundly moving emotional essence of music has been praised by everyone — from friends and neighbours to bass-baritone Gary Relyea. (If you haven’t heard Relyea’s rich voice or experienced first-hand his compelling musical insights, you may recognize him as “the judge with the beard” in the first season of the TV show Bathroom Divas!) Pam’s ability to connect her audience to intense emotion through music comes from both her understanding of technique and her life experience. She’s had her share of triumph and tragedy, winning her own fight with breast cancer only to suffer the staggering loss of her son James to neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer. She brings all these moments to her music, and her years of vocal study at the Royal Conservatory of Toronto as well. The consensus: “It is not possible to hear Pam sing without being touched deeply by the beauty of her voice.”
So, regardless of which night you attend Handel’s Messiah, you are in for a treat. Tenor Adam Bishop, mezzo-soprano Vicki St. Pierre, organist Ian Sadler, and trumpeter Paul Otway perform on both nights. (By the way, Adam Bishop was born and raised in Bancroft, and he once was a Peterborough Singer.) The bass for Monday, December 14 is Andrew Tees, and Giles Tomkins sings the bass role on Tuesday, December 15.
Each night, of course, Syd Birrell and the Peterborough Singers will glory in the music of this beloved oratorio. Handel’s Messiah has a special place in the hearts of all members of the choir, so they sing it with passion and joy. As Leslie Fagan comments, “The enthusiasm they bring and the depth of emotion they’re able to muster are quite exceptional. Peterborough has a real treasure here and should support it.”