How do you convince an internationally renowned star like Canadian soprano Suzie LeBlanc to perform in your annual performance of Handel’s Messiah? Easy, says Peterborough Singers Artistic Director Syd Birrell: first, set your sights high – higher than might seem reasonable – and then ask.
That’s what Birrell and the Singers have being doing successfully every single Christmas season for the past 25 years. The result is a rock-solid reputation for putting on one of the most reliably powerful and most soul-stirring annual performances of Handel’s Messiah around, frequently featuring some of the top vocal talent in Canada and internationally.
“We consciously pursue the goal of reaching far beyond your typical, small-town choral society,” says Birrell. “This year we are pleased to welcome not only Suzie LeBlanc to our roster of soloists, but renowned tenor Colin Ainsworth, baritone Andrew Tees, and mezzo-soprano Erin Fisher. These are all, without exception, musicians of the highest calibre.”
Birrell says he was delighted when he recently unearthed a hand-written note from a choir member dating back nearly 20 years, urging Birrell to try to secure a then-young and up-and-coming Ainsworth as a soloist. Twenty years later, “We got him back again.”
This year’s one-night-only performance of the Messiah will take place on Monday, December 18 at 7:30 pm at Emmanuel United Church East (formerly George St. United). Those interested in attending the performance are urged to purchase tickets ahead of time, as the house is expected to be full.
At the end of the day, however, a successful performance of the Messiah begins with the fundamentals: arguably the best-known oratorio of all time, one of the world’s top organists, and 100+ seriously committed singers from the Peterborough area, many of whom have been singing the oratorio every single year for two decades or more.
“I continue to be amazed at what happens when we perform Messiah,” says Birrell. “There is always an immensely strong emotional component of this as we sing it. It comes alive and meets us where we all are individually on our own personal journeys.”
“You never tire of this great work,” concludes Birrell. “It brings fresh joy. Something happens when we sing it together as a group of 120 people. The sum of the whole is way greater than the individual parts. And suddenly you’re a part of something huge.”
Birrell highlighted the role of Juno-winning organist Ian Sadler, a familiar figure to regular attendees at the Singers’ concerts. Sadler’s staggeringly complex contribution to every show, but especially the Messiah, can sometimes be lost in the midst of the unostentatious ease with which he replicates the textures and sounds of an entire orchestra on the magnificent organ at Emmanuel Church.
“We remain in awe of our accompanist Ian Sadler,” says Birrell, explaining that Sadler is one of a select breed of organists capable of mimicking a 30-40 piece orchestra on a single instrument. Before moving to Canada in the early 80s, Sadler’s final engagement in the UK was to play the organ in the movie, Chariots of Fire.
“We couldn’t ask for better accompanist,” says Birrell. “For most of us, just by the time he’s finished playing the introduction, we’re wanting to applaud, because we’re awed by the virtuosity.”