Messiah. Music by G. F. Handel. Text compiled by Charles Jennens. Canberra Choral Society. Llewellyn Hall. Saturday, December 12.
Tonight, looking at the tiered ranks of the 200 choristers on the stage of Llewellyn Hall and the elegant band of orchestral musicians seated in front of them, the similarity between this scene and those depicted in early gesso panel paintings suggested the possibility that the heavenly host spends its time rehearsing oratorios.
Perhaps tonight's performance of Messiah was a sneak preview of Handel's corner of Heaven. The elation at the conclusion of the concert was palpable and while passages in the early part of the evening may at times have felt earthbound, in the second half the chorus found its form, ready to lift off in the Hallelujah chorus. Tobias Cole, as musical director, and the committee and volunteers of the Canberra Choral Society are to be congratulated for creating a concert that was inclusive of new singers and satisfying for the audience. The packed auditorium was testament to the support in the wider community for the "come and sing" initiative.
Rowan Harvey Martin and the Canberra Choral Society Orchestra delivered a stellar performance. Not a note of the delicate tracery of the rapid string passages was lost, and the overall balance between the orchestra's volume and that of the singers was carefully maintained. It was a pleasure to hear Rick McIntyre's bassoon, the fine playing of James Huntingford on harpsichord and Peter Young on organ. Graeme Reynolds' solo in The Trumpet Shall Sound produced the requisite goosebumps, supporting Andrew Fysh in a nicely matched partnership.
It is interesting to ponder why Messiah remains so popular as a work to perform and something that audiences flock to. Messiah is a work that just about every musician wants to be part of at some point in their life – perhaps a rite of passage – and once learned, the music becomes embodied, so that when the Hallelujah chorus is reached, it is nearly impossible for a conductor to stop a strong cohort in the audience singing along.
At its heart, Messiah is an ancient tale of birth and hope, persecution and death followed by the triumphant defeat of mortality. Handel's music, and this message are powerfully appealing. The four soloists, two male, two female are the guides leading the way through the work. In a clever innovation, the Gallery Choir, led by Katy Cole, sang from their lofty position. Assisted by Cynthia Jolley-Rogers lighting design, they appeared to float up near the roof. The unobtrusive change in light levels did in fact help keep audience attention focused on the changing mood of the narrative.
As this is Christmas, dear readers, why not give a gift of music this year, either as a subscription to a concert series; music lessons; a musical instrument; music recordings or joining with friends to simply make music – perhaps the Hallelujah chorus on the top of Mount Ainslie!