Music / “Messiah”. Canberra Choral Society. At Llewellyn Hall, ANU School of Music, November 23. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE.
WHEN G F Handel presented the premiere of his oratorio, “Messiah”, in Dublin in 1742, he cobbled together a choir of 16 men and 16 boys, gave some of the men the solo parts, and had an orchestra of strings, two trumpets, timpani, and Handel’s own organ, which he had shipped from England.
It got only a lukewarm reception, but, by 1750, had grown in popularity and has remained in the “greatest-hits” category ever since.
Handel then set to and wrote some revisions as well as modifications to suit different orchestral and choral configurations.
For the Canberra Choral Society’s performance, the orchestra, led by an exuberant Peter Clark, was enlarged only a little, to include a harpsichord and some woodwinds, but there were around 200 voices in the choir.
The choir’s music director, Dan Walker, had prepared the vocal forces magnificently. There was superb balance across the divisions, entries were solid, and pitch was true, even for the sopranos’ impossibly high notes.
Leading from the harpsichord, the flamboyant conductor, Roland Peelman, directed an almost understated performance. Its understatement was a clever strategy, for it allowed Peelman to draw unparalleled expression, warmth and beauty from this enduring favourite, yielding limitless colours for emotion and dynamic textures.
In “For unto us a child is born” and “Lift up your heads”, however, the warmth was lost a little to a stiltedness, the notes almost being staccato. But all other choruses had very much a “wow” factor to them.
The four soloists, soprano Amy Moore, alto Stephanie Dillon, tenor Richard Butler and bass Andrew O’Connor, were the jewels in the crown of this brilliant concert.
Every word could be heard and their voices handled the complex musical structures, particularly the melismas, with fine clarity. Peelman had the orchestra under excellent control such that it never dominated but provided quite lovely support for the voices.
This was tear-jerking stuff right from the get-go. Butler’s “Comfort ye my people” – the opening solo – was full of sensitivity and emotion. The orchestra’s introduction to “There were shepherds abiding in the fields” was exquisitely expressive. Dillon’s “He was despised and rejected” was sorrowful. Moore’s “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” was triumphant. And O’Connor’s “Why do the nations” and “The trumpet shall sound” were exhilarating, underscored perfectly by trumpeter, Justin Lingard’s unexpected but blazing flourish at the end.
For the future, the Canberra Choral Society should look again at its program booklet layout. The font size made the content impossible to read in the low pre-concert light and certainly during the performance. This would explain the audience’s hesitant applause at the end of the first half.
But the society has made a very fine choice in Dan Walker as its music director. After less than a year in the role, his influence is very evident already and augurs well for 2020. That it is on the right path was proven by the audience’s immediate standing ovation at the end of this performance of “Messiah”.