The Splendour of Handel’s 'Messiah'

I am aware that Woroni’s readership were probably among the 30,000 people who flocked to Byron Bay for Splendour in the Grass this past weekend, however I want to share my thoughts on another truly wonderful event that occurred on Sunday 26th July, at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Manuka. Canberra-based chamber choir Coro and a stellar chamber ensemble of musicians including members of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra performed Handel’s Messiah. There is no definitive version of the Messiah, however this performance aimed to emulate Handel’s original vision for the piece, which was conceived in 1742. As the composer died more than 250 years ago, you may be wondering why performances of the Messiah are still relevant or important?

The Messiah is an oratorio, like an opera but the text is completely biblical and the performances are not dramatically staged. In the 18th century, oratorios were intended to educate their audiences on the gospel, however Coro’s performance confirmed that Handel’s Messiah has transcended religion. It is the music, not necessarily the message, which is sublime. You may be surprised, but you’ve probably heard parts of the Messiah before. The Hallelujah Chorus has been appropriated to advertise and sell white goods and Dulux paint on our televisions, however it actually originates from Handel’s Messiah.

This was the first time I had heard this infamous chorus in context: the voices in the chorus proclaim “Hallelujah, HALLELUJAH”, the strings are busily playing and then the heraldic trumpet sounds! The directive gestures given by conductor Joseph Nolan were truly animated and full of feeling.

Perhaps more a criticism of the venue (which, with its stained glass windows and ornately decorated beamed ceilings was beautifully grand) than the performers, however the choir was situated behind a huge arch and it seemed like the audience lost a lot of sound to the void behind. In moments of thunderous grandeur, such as the Hallelujah Chorus, the balance was underwhelming. Other moments of the Messiah featured vocal soloists and achieved a perfect balance between voice and orchestra.

As an ANU music student, it was awe-inspiring to see several of ANU’s lecturers performing. Bass soloist Peter Tregear (Head of the ANU School of Music), tenor soloist Paul McMahon (Head of Voice) and harpsichord continuo Calvin Bowman (senior lecturer, composer and organist) truly undoubtedly displayed that they are worth their salt – ridiculously skilled musicians in their respective roles and they truly ba-roqued out.

Despite the freezing Canberran weather, the event attracted a deservedly sold-out audience. I once read that at the debut performance of the Messiah in 1742 in Dublin, the crowd was so large that women were asked to leave their hooped skirts at home, and men were asked not to wear swords so as to allow as many people to be squeezed in as possible. Well at Coro’s performance, swords were swapped for scarfs and gloves, and as I shared a woolen blanket with the stranger beside me I honestly forgot how much I wanted to be at Splendour in the Grass and truly enjoyed the splendour of fantastic classical music.

ArtSound FM recorded this event, so if you’re classically inclined you haven’t missed out on the chance to hear this incredible performance!