I wasn’t planning on writing about Sydney Chamber Choir’s Messiah last Saturday night, but now, almost a week later, a week after the government announced their advice that all events of more than 500 people were to be banned, a week of extraordinary happenings, of people I am close to losing their jobs, friends and family facing the imminent shut down of their businesses and struggling to understand how they will be able to pay those in their employ, and all the craziness that this pandemic has brought into all of our lives, I feel the need to put my thoughts into words. I fear Saturday night’s concert at the City Recital Hall will be the last live performance I see for some time and while I am intensely saddened by this turn of events, I am immensely grateful it was this one, which I will remember for a long while to come.
The management of Sydney Chamber Choir and the City Recital Hall must have had such a hard decision to make on Friday afternoon when the announcement was made that this restriction would apply from the following Monday. Would they be criticised for their decision? How much pain would this entail? What would be the loss of income, or worse, loss of faith from their large audience base? I can’t image how difficult it was. They decided to go ahead and leave the final decision as to whether to attend or not in the hands of the ticket holders, many of whom were grateful for the opportunity to be refunded their tickets, no questions asked, if they did not feel comfortable attending a large gathering, and many others who were equally grateful to be able to attend. On the evening of the concert, as I walked out the door to head into the city I got the first of a very long string of cancellation emails.
So, there I was for a whole three hours of Messiah (yes, this was the full unabridged work). Thank goodness there were dinner boxes available, provided by Two Good Co. Actually these were quite impressive in their own right because of Two Good Co.’s ‘Eat one, treat one’ model. For every meal purchased an identical one is provided to a local women’s refuge. Handel would have approved, he had a close connection to helping those in need, so this was a perfect pairing and very well organised. There were many diners commenting on the quality of their meals.
Handel’s Messiah is a work I know and love, and have sung myself several times (yes, part of me did feel, ‘ho hum, another Messiah’), but by attending the performance I was braving possible chastisement from others for even trying to attend a ‘normal’ scheduled event (mind you, still within the bounds of our government’s advice to that date), and even the possibility of infection myself, but from the very first down beat I was in raptures. The staging of Messiah, Handel’s epic oratorio which follows the life of Jesus Christ, is often huge with large orchestras and hundreds of voices but this performance was almost intimate in nature, with only a chamber choir, 6 voices per part, an early music orchestra (the very, very excellent Muffat Collective), and a handful of soloists. In one word – stunning.
The Sydney Recital Hall is renowned for its clean acoustic but it was even more enhanced by conductor Sam Allchurch who managed the blend between the orchestra and voices beautifully throughout the concert. The text was so clear at all times that I didn’t need to open my program once, but sadly as a result I missed Natalie Shea’s informative annotations (which I caught up with later). Soloists Amy Moore, Stephanie Dillon, Andrew Goodwin and Andrew O’Connor were almost faultless, and for the most part sang off book with great emotion and narrative style. In fact what made this performance so special was the vigour and enthusiasm with which all of the performers approached the music. They obviously love this work and know it inside out, although one or two of the singers told me later that this was their first Messiah – you would not have picked it.
Matthew Greco, concert master, led a superb ensemble, well… masterfully. He added his own ornamentation as lead violinist and was a joy to watch as he physically embodied the shape of the phrasing he wanted, especially in the opening Sinfony.
Last but not least, the singers of the Sydney Chamber Choir themselves must get a huge round of applause (not to mention a standing ovation). Limelight magazine once quoted Allchurch when he picked up the baton from the late, great Richard Gill, as saying he was ‘handed the keys to a choral Rolls-Royce’. On Saturday night I think he had traded it in for a Ferrari! The choir’s energy rose and fell in sync with the oratorio’s storytelling and made me both laugh and cry (truly!). To quote Shea’s excellent notes, when the work reached its final climax “…it came inexorably and with utter confidence, flushed with excitement and grinning from ear to ear” so, indeed, did the Sydney Chamber Choir singers. Bravi tutti.
Thank you for a wonderful evening. I really, with all my heart, hope we can do it again some time, when times are less confusing.