Wasn’t it good to sing all the choruses in Messiah last night? After weeks of working on the detail of each one, seemingly at times in isolation, at last it all began to come together. Next week the soloists join us, then then the orchestra. At this point the music will be complete; in all its majesty, beauty and glory. What a privilege to sing such wonderful music under such an inspirational director as Carlos!
Last night there were some really good signs. The altos set us off with their first entry in warm, velvety tones. The Sopranos sang the long runs with clarity and direction. The Tenors managed some very difficult, angular lines in the midst of more melodic sections with aplomb. And far be it for me to comment on my colleagues, the Basses, but I thought we gave a firm foundation to the rest of the Choir.
We are about to give two memorable performances of one of the repertoire’s most famous oratorios. We in the Choir, the soloists, members of the orchestra, directed by Carlos will no doubt do the music justice. So all we have to do now is to ensure that as many people as possible benefit from our efforts putting up more posters and by persuading our friends and family members to fill the remaining empty seats. Let’s aim for two completely full houses!
As Naomi reminded us at rehearsal last night, in only three weeks’ time we will be preparing to spend Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon singing Handel’s masterpiece, Messiah.
There was a salutary reminder last night that the music is not a cake-walk and that we need to revise some of even the best known choruses in order to sing them to the best of our ability. And, as Carlos says each week, we must get our heads around the meaning behind the music if we are to communicate it effectively to our audiences.
I wonder how Handel was feeling three weeks before the first performance This was of course in Dublin, where the composer had spent several months at the invitation of one of his patrons, the Duke of Devonshire. He had professional musicians and singers, sufficient rehearsal time, and the only issue seems to have been the need to transpose some of the arias to suit the vocal range of the chosen soloists. That performance and a subsequent one before he returned to London were a considerable success.
The success was not repeated in London. The work was considered too dramatic to be performed in a church. Conversely, it was deemed sacrilegious to perform it in a theatre or concert hall. It took some time for London authorities and audiences to find the oratorio genre acceptable. And the rest is history, as they say.
The TryBooking website alone is selling tickets for 16 performances of Messiah this December, which can only be a small proportion of the total number of performances across the country. It’s good to know that we are continuing a long tradition in the company of so many like-minded people.
This week’s blog comes from Roger Pratt, recently returned from a few weeks in Central Europe, including Vienna.
I had hoped that the Vienna Philharmonic would be playing at the very grand Musikverein while I was there, but that was not to be. Instead I saw the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, a huge and very Russian sounding orchestra. The first half was Bruch’s Violin Concerto, with Julia Fischer, arguably one of the greatest violinists of the 21st century, as soloist. The Bruch is maybe hackneyed, but is still such an emotive and soul rending work, especially the slow movement.
But the highlight for me was the second half – the 13th Symphony by Shostakovich, known as the Babi Yar. It is a dark, sombre and harrowing work. Babi Yar was the site near Kiev, where the Germans in 1941 slaughtered 35,000 Jews in the space of two days. Shostakovich depicts this through his music, which is a choral symphony but featuring a bass only line-up. I counted 60 basses at this performance, and their sound authentically had that deep full Russian timbre. It is a long symphony, lasting over an hour, and was a highly emotional experience. The huge audience in the Musikverein were totally silent for several minutes after it finished. Applause somehow felt inappropriate.
You may wonder why this symphony would be so special for me. Well, I was privileged in 1987 to be asked to sing in the bass chorus of the CBSO under the baton of Simon Rattle. We performed the Babi Yar at the Royal Festival Hall in London and later went on to record it for Decca. That experience stayed with me, and hearing it done so meaningfully by a full Russian orchestra and choir, in such a sublime venue, was indeed something very special.
That was supposed to be the end of the concert, but we were given one final treat – an encore. It was Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This is one of the most ‘English’ pieces of music ever written, and was performed beautifully by the orchestra. Just when I thought I had reached my emotional zenith, having that wash over me brought tears to my eyes. Music can do that to you. It may not happen often, but when it does it truly is an unforgettable experience.
“Amen!” As we sang the final chorus of Messiah at rehearsal last night I was reminded that no one has responded to my invitation a couple of weeks ago to find out how many “Amen”s there are in the Amen Chorus. So I decided to count them for myself.
The answer is that there are 142 “Amen”s in the Amen Chorus. The Sopranos sing 26, the Altos 37, the Tenors 38, and we Basses sing the most, 41. The last figure is not surprising as we kick the whole thing off. However, the figure for the Sopranos is interesting. While the rest of us sing largely short phrases, the Sopranos sing long, flowing, arch-like phrases which gives each “Amen” a longer span. Very effective choral writing, as you would expect from none other than Mr. Handel.
I did warm very much to Carlos’ request for us to sing this chorus with wisdom. We have already done justice to the triumphal mood in “Blessing and honour, glory and power be unto Him.” A finish which reflects on the whole piece with understanding and wisdom is so much more effective than just another big noise. It acts almost as an Epilogue, more meditative and thoughtful, making it a commentary on all that has gone before.
That having been said, I imagine that right at the end we will all sing the final “Amen”s with as much gusto as we can produce after a vocally demanding two hours of singing.
And now for something completely different. As I write, there are tickets available for all the evening concerts of the Sydney Chamber Music Festival, held in Manly Art Gallery this weekend. Tonight’s (Friday) and Saturday’s concerts are delightful combinations of instruments playing music on the theme “Figuratively Speaking” to match the current art exhibition. On Sunday, none other than the world-renowned pianist Piers Lane is giving a recital. I can think of no better way to spend a Sunday evening. To be able to hear such an accomplished and famous pianist in the intimate setting of the Manly Art Gallery, is incomparable. Festival Director Bridget Bolliger has worked wonders to include him in the programme. It is inconceivable that there are still seats available. But there are. So click here to book them straight away. See you there!
It is said that things, both the good and the bad, come in threes. I am never quite sure how to interpret this idea, especially when, as recently, three linked things happen which may be seen as either good or bad.
It’s all about Australian rites of passage; things which seem dauntng at the time, and then turn out to be things which everyone, or almost everyone, has done..
The first was in September, when we drove to the red centre of the country, covering 1,000km of gravel roads including the iconic Birdsville Track. In dry conditions the journey was uneventful except for two dramatic punctures. We went because our son told us we could not count ourselves as Australian unless we had been to Birdsville. And we returned with stories similar to those of the many others who have travelled the same road.
The second is continuing. Claiming for the Age Pension is akin to entering a mysterious labyrinthine world full of complexities, intricacies and eccentricities understood only by a chosen few. Rounds one and two have proved unfruitful, but I hope to score at least a technical victory in round three. Again, this process seems to provide most entrants with a fund of intriguing stories.
And thirdly this week I have submitted myself to the skin clinic for them to scrape bits off several parts of my anatomy and send them for testing. Which is why I was not at Choir last night – I have to sit for a few days with leg elevated until the wound heals. I had thought I was special to receive this treatment. But no, it seems to be a routine procedure for most of my fellow-countrymen and women. I feel something of a wuss for having made so much fuss about it.
So there we are, three things, good or bad I am not sure. But it is good to feel ever more Australian, having experienced these particularly Australian rites of passage.