Catering to both those who embrace dreams and reality, the musicians of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra (ABO) led by artistic director and harpsichordist Paul Dyer AM annually offer a superb choice of concerts founded on Baroque music repertoire.
The ABO commenced its 2017 program with its first ever production of the sacred oratorio composed by London based German born George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), The Messiah. For this presentation the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, the Brandenburg Choir and four internationally acclaimed young vocal soloists took part including Lucia Martín-Cartón (soprano, Spain), countertenor Nicholas Spanos (alto, Greece), Kyle Bielfield (tenor, United States), and David Greco (bass, Australia).
The Heart Feels it First was an appropriate catch phrase for this the first performance of The Messiah in the Melbourne Recital Centre, since it opened its doors in 2009. This all-new production totally wowed the crowd on Saturday night February 25 in the acoustically wonderful Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.
At the end of their triumph on Saturday night, the audience showed their appreciation for the ABO by leaping to their feet as one and offering thanks through rolling acclamation. Their reaction could be likened to that of the Irish of Dublin, when The Messiah premiered at the Musick Hall on April 13, 1742, such was their enthusiasm, declaring it ‘the finest composition of Musick that ever was heard’.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra sited at the back of the stage provided accompaniment for the Brandenburg Choir and soloists at this performance. Consistently they meld magically together as a truly great ensemble should and personally, I don’t ever think I have been more impressed with how they played on the night – it was a truly flawless performance.
Handel’s music for The Messiah is born of free imagination – no rules or boundaries, it showcases universal emotions we can all understand love, adoration, hope, fear, anger and isolation.
Co-founder of the ABO over 25 years ago, Paul Dyer’s brilliant ability to take music of the ‘Baroque’ era apart, put it back together making it appear all brand new for many people, has been at the essence of the ABO and its outstanding success.
Over the centuries since it was composed this great work has become a tradition most especially in England and later in America and Australia.
Success for The Messiah is all about the beauty of George Handel’s music; his extraordinary ability to provide an emotionally intense experience as he showcased the most glorious aspects of human voices singing either as a soloist, or member of the choir.
From an original libretto by Charles Jennens, Handel plumbed the depths of the story about the journey of Jesus the Christ on earth, convincing followers of his way through song there is always hope.
Paul Dyer provided a landmark change with his all-new ‘abridged’ version, which ravishes the senses ensuring through this production that The Messiah has leaped successfully back into the world of secular audiences.
In the program Paul Dyer noted he puts Handel ‘right at the beating heart and soul of the Brandenburg… the Messiah ignites my imagination’ and noted he was glad to be given an opportunity to present it, the timing seemed right.
The Church for 275 years has presented Handel’s The Messiah at Easter time and-or Christmas, singing the stunning Hallelujah Chorus its most renowned highpoint, anytime they want an excuse to celebrate life. The original draft score is today among the greatest musical treasures in the British Library.
Oratorios at that time were basically operas without action. Coming from an ancient source, one that did not originally have a stage setting and meant to appeal to the ‘imaginative contemplation of the listener’.
Re-imagined for the modern world during the early sixteenth century, by the eighteenth century and Handel’s time, the oratorio as a genre offered an edifying story line about heroes, while fostering the apprehension of figures of the imagination.
Handel composed 20 such works with The Messiah being the only one concerned with the Christian faith, meant ‘to raise morality and piety among the people’. After completing its famed Hallelujah Chorus, with tears streaming down his face he declared: “I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God himself.”
For The Messiah Handel made changes to the usual format of an oratorio by having the chorus do the majority of the work rather than have the soloists entirely dominate the action. Handel didn’t know at the time, but he was preparing the ground for the intensity of physical reality that would come to fruition in our time.
Paul Dyer re-modelled some content and restructured instrumentation for this performance adding ‘staging’ to captivate the audience. The ABO presented their reinterpretation of The Messiah in four segments, rather than the more usual three under the headings Darkness to Light, The Dream, Shame and Mourning and Ecstatic Light.
The choir drive this great work forward, offering the listener emotional impact and uplifting messages, with the soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists providing gravitas.
Individually there were many great voices in the chorus, which was just the right size. They rendered out as a beautifully coherent whole and I could only think how outstanding they were as they illuminated the stage and showcased their choruses with distinction.
The action was designed for by Constantine Costi, Charlotte Mungomery and Genevieve Graham graduates of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Australia who worked with Paul Dyer on his dramatization. Handel gave his singers an outstanding vehicle to show off their voices and I have to say watching their faces as they sing has always been an important aspect of the experience.
Some aspects of the staging didn’t work so well for me – maybe there were problems transposing the production to the Melbourne stage – a different size/shape than the Sydney stage. I have to say at times the movement on stage looked messy and as the concert proceeded in some scenes I was wishing the concept ‘less is more’ had been embraced.
The influence of inspirational Italian sixteenth century painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573-1610) was involved. In his day Caravaggio used light in painting in a new and exciting way, but always in regard to reverence and respect for the meaning of light traditionally in symbolism, which was to exalt or dignify.
The lighting from where we were sitting had difficult patches and was sometimes late in arriving, a few times non-existent. Judging by photos from the next day’s 5pm show these had been addressed. On the first night however I had to be content with being consoled as the glorious voices of the chorus rang out.
The choir were quite simply awesome really, and when they burst onto the stage together to sing the Hallelujah Chorus without any form of prompting the hair on my arms stood up and to attention, even though I didn’t.
Standing when this special work is being sung has been a tradition in the sacred arena for hundreds of years, which is all about respecting an outstanding work of musical art and showing off your admiration for the voices and music – in this case they were truly sublime.
There are no ‘characters’ in The Messiah the soloists provide the storytelling through the rich quality, beauty and sensitivity of their voices.
At one point opera crossed over into oratorio and the clear compelling voice belonging to Spanish Soprano Lucia Martin Carton took second place to the sensuous Carmen style approach to her role, especially when singing Rejoice Greatly. I would have preferred a visual element of quiet restraint had been introduced, allowing the lovely lady herself and her luscious voice a platform on which to really shine.
Trained at the famed Julliard Music School in New York award winning American tenor the blonde and beautiful Kyle Bielfield displayed many dimensions to his very special voice, one that suited the acoustic of the celebrated hall he was singing in. A crossover artist from opera to pop, he displayed both power and presence and while he had less chance to perform than the others, made an impact ensuring there will be a demand to see more of him in the future.
Countertenor Nicholas Spanos had the meatiest role. Well versed in singing works by Handel during his career to date, he has a voice with a deep register, one that really shone when it warmed up, providing great intensity for many of his arias. I enjoyed his ‘He was despised’ and ‘then shall the eyes of the blind be open’d, best.
Bass David Greco revealed his personal zeal for his solo work and Behold, I tell you a mystery and ‘The Trumpet shall sound’ were favourites. The latter delighted the audience when accompanied by the baroque trumpet of Leanne Sullivan.
She came out onto the stage thrilling everyone – I could only wish she had been standing in a trumpet gallery high up near the vault of a great stone Gothic cathedral, where it would have resonated for a long time after.
The Messiah is a work integral to my life’s journey, both being part of a performance not only in its traditional sacred context, but in choirs at school from kindergarten to leaving and way beyond, including as a member of the women’s choir and lay clerk’s choir at St John’s Cathedral 2000 – 2005 when I was living in the precinct. I have also enjoyed being in the audience of the many and varied Symphony Orchestras around Australia who have offered it up annually for decades.
Living in Melbourne after Easter 2010 I have applauded that this is a place where previous perceptions are being overturned all the time here keeping arts and culture alive, and an important aspect of human life. Based on Saturday night’s experience the secular world haven’t begun to tap into the possibilities of their audience out there for The Messiah, including those willing to listen and learn.
There are also those now educated in appreciation of the wonders, beauty and joys of Baroque music by the ABO under the skilful direction of Mr Dyer, who are sure to be spreading the news. What happens next for The Messiah is anyone’s guess. Now it is well and truly back the secular world with this ‘pop’ version, perhaps with just a little tweaking, the ABO‘s performance is bound to stay.
Who knows, it may even pay its re-interpreter a bonus, becoming a tradition for a new generation all over again.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
All images courtesy of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, photos by Steven Godbee