“Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” The war in Iraq? Suicide bombers in Afghanistan? Mike Duffy pontificating about Canadian politics on television? No, it’s the title of an aria from Handel’s timeless and universal oratorio, Messiah.
Those familiar with this Christmas and Easter perennial favourite should make tracks to tomorrow’s sing-along version or Saturday’s more formal presentation at Cavalry Baptist Church. Chorus Niagara music director Robert Cooper conducts, the Talisker Players provide the orchestral accompaniment and a quartet of soloists will take the stage to offer personal insights into arias that have been sung in public more often than any other piece of music.
One of those is twenty-seven-year-old baritone Giles Tomkins. Despite his young years, Tomkins has already achieved considerable success with performances in Canada and the U.K. and a just-released CD, “And so it Goes.” Pulse reached the versatile soloist at his home in Toronto and wondered how he “got the bug.”
“I was always a choral singer. As a child I was a member of the Toronto Children’s Chorus. After my voice changed I moved along to the Mendelssohn Youth Chorus. On a number of occasions we sang Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. It was magical and the coolest piece, starting off with a Gregorian chant Hodie, then hearing Judy Loman’s harp in the accompaniment was unforgettable. But when I landed the role of Curly for our high school’s production of Oklahoma I was hooked: I told my parents I was going to be a professional singer—the pharmaceutical career would have to wait!”
In a typical year, Tomkins is involved with 40-50 performances. This season, he was in the Canadian Opera Company chorus for the Ring Cycle in the resplendent Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and toured with the Royal Scottish Opera Company in Puccini’s La Bohème—arguably the operatic equivalent, in terms of popularity, of Handel’s masterpiece.
No two performances are the same. “Every time I’m on stage I feel the adrenalin’s flowing for not completely knowing what’s going to happen. A different conductor, a new orchestra, the acoustics—all of these factors are changing so I have to be adaptable,” he said. “There are many choral ensembles like Chorus Niagara that can offer me work, but many tend to do the same repertoire and often hire more established soloists. I’m probably too young to be asked to appear in Verdi’s Rigoletto, but I’d be delighted to sing more contemporary works by such composers as John Adams and Arvo Pärt.
Early next year, Tomkins will stretch his talents even further with recitals of Beethoven Lieder and twenty-first century new music, the latter also with the Talisker Players.
Tomkin’s CD is self-described as “crossover.” “Everyone has their own definition—some critics with negative connotations. It seems to be the right step to break into a tough market and compete with established artists. How many more recordings of Schubert’s song cycles will be commercially viable?” he explained. The album’s tracks include original compositions by film composer Christopher Dedrick (Road to Avonlea), songwriter Trey Mills (“I Wonder” #4 video on Bravo) and a few well-know standards such as “Homeward Bound,” which also features the golden tones of the Canadian Brass.
“Like my gradual move forward onto the opera circuit [Tomkins appears in Rossini’s Barber of Seville in 2007], I feel the recording is a good stepping stone. We took our time and did it well, but we also had fun in the process!”
Fellow collaborators for the Messiah gig include soprano Agnes Zsigovics, alto Liliana Piazza and tenor Adam Luther. With over fifty-three recitativos, arias and choruses in the complete score (and several alternates) every “performance” of this music is different. But its greatest hits will most certainly fill the church to the rafters: “Hallelujah,” “And the glory of the Lord” and “Worthy is the Lamb” (which features perhaps the most hair-raising “Amen” in the standard repertoire) will have seasoned listeners joining in and newcomers wondering why they hadn’t come across this magnificent choral spectacle years earlier (er, hello there school boards everywhere).
Tomkins’ other solo spots include “The people that walked in darkness” and the perennial show stopper (if the chops are “secure”) “The trumpet shall sound.”
“There’s nothing that can compare with the experience of live performance. So many people feel that their holiday season will be off to a good start once they’ve had their annual Messiah performance. They want to be inspired by good music, well performed,” he concluded.
Amen to that. JWR