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Queensland Symphony Orchestra- Handel’s Messiah

Photo courtesy of Queensland Symphony Orchestra.

1 December 2012.

THE Messiah is one of the most universally popular and most frequently performed works in Western music.

Interestingly, this by itself provides unique challenges for its performance.

I am pleased to report that on this occasion, Handel's best known work was staged with commendable technical expertise on the part of the Queensland Orchestra conducted by Tecwyn Evans, with convincing soloists – Susanna Andersson (soprano), Georgia Hawes (mezzo-soprano), Henry Choo (tenor), Andrew Collis (baritone) – and conviction from the Brisbane Chorale.

Still, for me this raises an interesting question.

This is music which, because of its profile and frequency of performance, demands and receives masterful renditions on many occasions.

If we are an audience for a masterful performance in a tradition of such performances, what is it then that we listen for which is truly striking?

Handel was a business-savvy composer who understood that an oratorio – a work like an opera in various respects – could be staged during Lent while operas where prohibited, and would attract an audience normally inclined to enjoy dramatic works and who might attend an oratorio when an opera was unavailable.

In this way Handel could produce musical events all year round.

Drama as entertainment during the 1700s was a very important artistic force.

Indeed if I had to sum up Baroque music in a single word, I could do worse than to choose "dramatic."

The Messiah embodies this late Baroque dramatic quality.

I listened for this latent, contagious drama, and found that although the performance was technically proficient, overall it might have been bolder.

In particular, conviction across the entire ensemble seemed to vary between sections.

The soloists themselves were very enlivening.

The vibrancy of Henry Choo's performance begins even before he sings, and only increases from there.

Andrew Collis' entry demonstrated his understanding of the need for drama in this work. Georgia Hawes was, for me, the star of the show.

Her capturing the audience is not simply achieved via an expert delivery but with soulful eye contact, and similarly later, for a brief but important moment with her colleague Henry Choo during their duet.

Susanna Andersson's performance unfolded as if blooming so that her strongest moment was I know that my Redeemer liveth; gratifyingly mitigating any risk of an anti-climax following the well-known Hallelujah Chorus.

Susanna Andersson develops a narrative in her singing, and in this case Henry Choo intuitively took up the narrative with passion and style for one of the most remarkable moments during the performance: During The trumpet shall sound, Henry Choo seemed to delight in the sound of trumpeter Sarah Wilson as she delivered a stunningly flawless solo.

The Brisbane Chorale was satisfyingly enthusiastic.

Occasional lapses (especially some lack of clarity during the denser counterpoint) were more than offset by a commitment to animation and dynamics, and a general richness of sound.

A few ecstatic faces in the chorus almost singlehandedly validated the entire experience.

The QSO's performance was almost note-perfect. Yet to me it seemed too classical, and a little disinterested.

The Messiah isn't properly a classical work; rather it represents a crowning, conclusive burst of activity in a longstanding proto-classical musical tradition.

Drama in this music begs to be released, and the players simply did not physically move enough.

The rollercoaster fugues, surprising leaps of range, rapid-fire string rhythms, angular melodies, adventurous recitative harmonies sometimes approaching a contemporary sound, grand cadences and the iconic cantus firmus unisons mean that performers must not simply render, but revel; more than simply enjoy they must be exuberant.

Every dynamic must, err, be exulted, if only for a moment. We should barely keep ourselves from joining in with the chorus!

A masterful rendition by itself does not offer something truly striking.

The orchestra were more roused during some of the fast-paced, contrapuntal sections (e.g. He that dwelleth in Heaven) and for a recalcitrant moment I wished Handel had written the whole work with more challenging orchestral parts. Maybe this is pernickety of me.

But the question is this: What is distinctive in an expert performance of many expert performances?

I suggest that something must be, if this music is to remain an item on a program certain to draw an audience.

Read more about Thomas Green.

Photo : Photo courtesy of Queensland Symphony Orchestra.