Full disclosure before you read on, I am a not-so-secret Handel fangirl. In fact as I reflect on my year I realise I have actually seen 3 (yes 3) live performances of Handel’s Messiah’s in the past 12 months…
This time last year I was at St Andrew’s Cathedral in the centre of Sydney’s bustling shopping-frenzied CBD enjoying a very traditional version of this famous Handel oratorio. It was packed to the rafters… and then the world changed a bit.
The next Messiah I saw (around Easter, by Sydney Chamber Choir) was the last live classical music concert in Sydney before the arts sector was shut down at the end of March, 2020. I wrote then “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 chamber orchestra, and a handful of soloists.”
Ha! Little did I realise the next Messiah I would see would be performed live online by just 12 singers, a string quartet, piano and chamber organ, billed as the first of The Song Company’s Salon Livestreams. I’m not sure how much more intimate you could get, but I put my preconceptions aside last night the 9th of December, and I was very pleasantly surprised. From the familiar opening chord, this time picked out by a single cello accompanied by chamber organ, I was captured.
Artistic Director Antony Pitts puts things into perspective in his program notes, he recalls ‘A ‘salon’ version of Messiah is the way I first and have most often experienced this oratorio, although I have since conducted large-scale performances. I grew up in a house full of music… every year, usually around Christmas, they (his parents) would gather some two dozen to thirty singer friends who would pack into the living-room around an upright piano and sing through Messiah, almost literally – and certainly metaphorically – raising the roof!’
Watching this live Song Company Salon on Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, thanks to the magic of the sound and camera artists at work on the sidelines, I was able to experience the joy of hearing some of Australia’s finest singers just gathered around the chamber organ and piano. It felt familiar and relaxed and there were many smiles cast around the room as the concert progressed. It was performed at Song Company’s home in Sydney’s recently revitalised Walsh Bay Arts precinct which houses a group of prestigious companies including Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Dance Company, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Gondwana Choirs, Bell Shakespeare, Australian Chamber Orchestra and Australian Theatre of Young People. The buildings have been designed as a contemporary interpretation of the original gantries reflecting the precinct’s former industrial heritage and the new development includes performance spaces, one of which was put to good use for this unique Messiah.
Having no external audience allowed the performers to be turned inwards towards each other, with the vocalists literally passing the baton across the room so that we hear the separate solos split across the parts with seamless transitions into the choruses. In his notes Pitts hopes that we the audience will be able to hear details that we’ve never heard before, and of course, he was right. Each performer, singers and musicians alike, being soloists in their own right, added their personal ornamentation and unique interpretation of this classic work.
For this performance Messiah Part 1 was supplemented with an extra aria and chorus so it could finish (fittingly for the end of 2020) with the famous, jubliant “Hallelujah” chorus.
With so many extraordinary soloists working together it is extremely hard to call out individuals from this group of performers so I will just mention them all and say bravi tutti! This was a thoroughly enjoyable night in (and yes, I’ll admit, I did sing along with every chorus in my living room, plus some of the arias too, after all it’s not every night you get to sing with Taryn Fiebig right?!
Anna Sandström, Amy Moore, Taryn Fiebig – Sopranos
Hannah Fraser, Janine Harris, Steph Dillon – Altos
Dan Walker, Ethan Taylor, Koen van Stade – Tenors
Andrew O’Connor, Hayden Barrington, Thomas Flint – Basses
And members of the Bach Akademie Australia, directed by Madeleine Easton:
Madeleine Easton – Violin 1
Michelle O’Young – Violin 2
Nicole Forsyth – Viola
James Beck – Cello
Francis Greep – Song Company Associate Artistic Director & Piano
Antony Pitts – Song Company Artistic Director & Conductor