Canberra Choral Society presents Handel's Messiah. Llewellyn Hall, ANU School of Music. Saturday, November 25 at 7.30pm. canberrachoralsociety.org.
The first performance of Handel's oratorio, Messiah, in Dublin in 1742 received only moderate public attention but over the almost three centuries since then it has become one of the greatest musical favourites of all time.
Leonard Weiss, who will conduct Canberra Choral Society's Messiah at Llewellyn Hall on Saturday, November 25, has had a busy musical year: among other engagements, a full conducting schedule with the National Capital Orchestra and the Canberra Youth Orchestra, including its latest concert with James Morrison. Weiss loves to be at the helm of a full stage of instrumentalists and choristers - in this presentation, more than 175 singers and 30 orchestral players. He says that every Messiah is different.
"You have to join each movement into an overarching whole," Weiss says, "and weave the macro and micro elements with a good perspective of both. It's going to be a seamless experience putting it all together. I like new things that I haven't done before and Messiah is different from a lot of the standard repertoire that I've conducted. I have made a few radical changes." `
These have been carefully thought through to give a different emphasis and to tell the story just a little differently.
For example, he has given his soloists a more prominent role to showcase their talents and provide suitable vocal contrasts.
"Their soul is gone out", normally a chorus, is now a tenor recitative, for one thing, and the final "Amen" chorus begins with the soloists singing completely unaccompanied before the orchestra and chorus join in - Weiss says he wanted to convey the effect of praying in church and a building up of power and emotion.
Weiss says of this Messiah, "Our customisation is different from others and we have a wealth of soloists, amazing musicians who have been on my wish-list for a long time."
Three of these - soprano Greta Claringbould, counter-tenor Tobias Cole, and tenor Paul McMahon - are Canberra residents and bass, Jeremy Tatchell, lived and trained here before moving to Adelaide.
Weiss says, "Although this is my first Messiah I've been able to draw on the experience of others, a dedicated troupe of people from the lineage of Toby Cole, Graham Abbott and Brett Weymark, conductors that I really look up to. As a young conductor it's challenging to be trusted and that Canberra Choral Society has faith in me is a terrific honour."
Peter Young is CCS's chorus master and a musician who has studied every aspect of Handel's music. He says, "The Messiah arias are so well tailored for the singers for whom Handel wrote," and he relates the story of contralto Susannah Cibber's so charming a Dublin clergyman with her rendition of the aria, "He was despised," at the premiere of the work, that the man leapt to his feet and cried, "Woman, for this be all they sins forgiven thee!"
This aria, incidentally, is Tobias Cole's favourite. He says, "I haven't before performed Messiah just as a singer and I'm looking forward to involving myself in all the alto arias. "Since by man came death" is also beautiful. I fell in love with Handel's harmonies."
Cole believes that what is particularly attractive about Messiah is that it's filled with quotes that we all know: "Unto us a child is born" for example. "There are these phrases that have been locked into a melody and a harmony. I'm interested in how people listen to the English language when it's sung." He thinks that we latch on to familiar phrases not only in classical music but also on to clichés from pop songs.
Cole goes on, "What interests me is how people can be engaged with this work which covers themes rather than real stories: the anticipation of the birth of Christ; the Passion; the Resurrection – its promise and future."
And what does he think is the essence of chorus success?
"Oh, feeling and locking in with the mood of the piece; to really be on board with the whole performance and to have sensitivity to the mood."
For Young the text, in the case of Messiah by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, is always critical, "especially when there is counterpoint," he says, "and clarity and articulation of phrases are very important. The first title of the work was A New Sacred Oratorio and the text was a rather controversial issue. People complained about the New Testament references. There's a lot of commentary by people using text straight out of the bible.
"Handel's Messiah has never been out of the repertoire but we need to rediscover the excitement of this work. Handel wrote Messiah as a business proposition but most performances were for charitable causes and it was unusual for a composer to contribute to the community in this way."
Although Weiss has made changes to this production of Messiah, audiences need not fear for the most famous of the oratorio's choruses.
"You can't change 'Hallelujah', Weiss says.
"I don't think I'd be asked back for anything if I changed 'Hallelujah'."