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Love and passion as conductor Helyard brings home Messiah

The CSO’s Messiah. Photo: Martin Ollman

Music / The Messiah, Canberra Symphony Orchestra. At Llewellyn Hall, June 21. Reviewed by IAN McLEAN.

From the moment during the Sinfony (Overture) when, with absolute precision and accuracy, the tempo changed from slow and grave to a rapid, energetic rhythmic pattern, it was obvious that this performance of The Messiah was to be a performance of outstanding quality. 

And so it transpired to be!

Brett Weymark, one of Australia’s foremost choral conductors, was to conduct this performance, but became indisposed just before rehearsals began. Conductor and keyboard performer Erin Helyard, who specialises in early music and baroque opera, was able to step in and what a marvellous job he did. 

He conducted with an obvious love and passion for Handel’s famous oratorio and achieved a fine balance between the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, the Canberra Symphony Orchestra Chorus and four excellent soloists. 

His control of tempi and dynamics was outstanding leading to an interpretation that was vibrant, exciting and genuinely thrilling.

Led by concertmaster Kirsten Williams, the CSO played with spark and flair, excellent phrasing and meticulous attention to intonation and internal balance. 

The soloists were equally impressive. Tenor Robert Macfarlane opened proceedings with the aria Ev’ry Valley and set the bar high with crystal-clear diction, forceful projection and fine breath control.

His recitatives, He that Dwelleth in Heaven and Thou Shalt Break Them, were highlights. 

Bass Christopher Hillier was suitably dark and foreboding. With his voice resonating clearly throughout Llewellyn Hall he was particularly impressive with Behold I Tell you a Mystery and in his duet with trumpeter Justin Lingard – The Trumpet Shall Sound. It was performed with great dignity and power and perfectly in context. 

Alto Hannah Fraser sang with great control, her power of expression was particularly evident during two of the most poignant songs in Messiah – He was Despised and How Beautiful are the Feet. 

As a student in London in the 1980s I recall my harmony professor explaining that, musically, the words “I Know” in I Know that my Redeemer Liveth could only be sung to the interval of a Perfect 4th. Any other vocal interval would have meant “I Think”, “Perhaps” or “Maybe” but Handel’s choice left absolutely no doubt about the surety of his conviction. 

Soprano Jacqueline Porter delivered the magnificent song with great pathos and was equally impressive singing There were Shepherds Abiding in the Fields and Rejoice Greatly.

There are so many great tunes for the chorus in Messiah and the enthusiastic CSO Chorus relished the opportunity to give them a high-quality airing. And the Glory of the Lord, For Unto us a Child is Born, Glory to God, Lift up Your Heads and, of course, the Hallelujah Chorus, were sung with passion and excitement along with clean, clear diction and neat vocal balance.

A superb performance of Messiah offers the opportunity to become absorbed in the text and immersed in the magic of the glorious music. The experience is immediately humbling, reflective and meditative and perfect for appreciating a power beyond, rather than being captured in selfish worldliness. This performance did just that!

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Thank you,

Ian Meikle, editor

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