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MSO: Sir Andrew’s Messiah

by Heather Leviston
Sir Andrew Davis. Image credit: Hugh Peachey.

I’m not sure what was going on down below, but the best part of the audience in the Balcony section of Hamer Hall was on its collective feet cheering away the instant “Sir Andrew’s Messiah” came to its triumphant end. The enthusiastic acclaim sprang from two aspects of Sunday evening’s performance: firstly, it was Sir Andrew Davis’s final performance as Chief Conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; and secondly, this significant occasion was given fitting and very personal expression in his remarkably creative and exhilarating reorchestration of Handel’s masterpiece.

The title of the concert might contain a whiff of hubris, but Sir Andrew’s respect for what is possibly the best loved and most widely performed sacred work is beyond doubt. He began his version in December 2009 and finished it in October 2010, his sole aim being “to clothe the work with all the colours available from a modern orchestra.” And it was not just colours of added instruments that gave new life to a score that some might have come to listen to with less focused attention over many iterations; it was the way all instruments were deployed to add intensity and drama that was so riveting. In addition to the imaginative use of the instruments used in Handel’s versions, others such as alto flute, oboe d’amore, harp and a range of percussion instruments provided unexpected emotional effects. The role of that most exotic looking of all instruments, the Turkish crescent, which joined sleigh bells, trumpets and others to give emphasis to the final moments of the “Hallelujah Chorus” might not have been to everybody’s taste, but there was no denying that it added to the uplifting festive note – as did the two tambourines for the chorus “The Lord gave the word”.

It would also have been impossible to resist the inspired opening of “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, with a solo clarinet made doubly tender and radiant by Siobhan Stagg’s glorious singing. When she sang “How beautiful are the feet” for her first Messiah in 2012 with the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic, I couldn’t help thinking how beautiful was the voice; it was a case of déjà vu for this performance. With marimba colouring the violins and Sir Andrew’s finely judged tempi it was something to savour. His realisation of “Rejoice” was similarly effective as harp, what he called “some punchy woodwind writing” and two solo violas for the middle section complemented the violins and soprano in virtuosic rejoicing.

Although Siobhan Stagg was truly exceptional, the other soloists also made impressive contributions, displaying musical and dramatic sensitivity to Sir Andrew’s interpretation. It was clear that mezzo-soprano Fiona Campbell, who was called in at short notice to replace an ailing Catherine Wyn-Rogers, was on intimate terms with Handel’s work as she sang with minimal reference to the score she was holding. Like Stagg, she has a warm, luminous presence and sang the alto arias with expressive involvement, whether conveying the energy of “For he is like a refiner’s fire” with its flame-like flickers of high woodwind and muted trumpets or bringing moving sincerity to “He was despised” accompanied by a plaintive cor anglais and strings.

Topi Lehtipuu also brought incisive dramatic flair to the recitatives and arias for tenor. His voice might not have always projected with steady flow to the hall’s upper reaches in the quieter moments, but, as the lady sitting beside me remarked, he slowly drew you in. He possesses an attractive tone and a technique that allowed him to colour and shape a phrase to best convey meaning that created some gripping moments. The four pieces beginning with “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart” were emotionally engaged and engaging in their contrasting moods. The passion and aggression invested in “Thou shalt break them in pieces” and the preceding recitative were made even more arresting by the presence of a snare drum.

James Clayton’s well-projected, even voice met all the demands of the bass recitatives and arias. As a baritone, his top notes were firm and ringing, but he was also able to deliver the lower notes with strong rounded tone. Along with admirable agility in the florid passages of “Why do the nations”, he impressed with his ability to colour his voice and evoke a sense of mystery and awe in “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” (enhanced by the effect of playing with the wood of the bow) and for the beginning of “Behold, I tell you a mystery” (coloured by harp and woodwinds). Both pieces expanded into stirring affirmation, the latter with Principal Trumpet Owen Morris joining Clayton at the front of the stage for an exciting “The trumpet shall sound”.

The MSO Chorus, of course, had the last word – unflagging in buoyant energy, precision and tone to the last final “Amen”. Along the way numerous highlights included a remarkably balanced blending of voices while maintaining distinctive choral lines for a hushed “Since by man came death” before the “Resurrection” outburst. Carefully graduated dynamics on the part of all participants was a satisfying feature of this performance. Whether articulating the most delicate passages or in full celebratory mode, it seemed they were determined to make this occasion a worthy homage to Sir Andrew Davis and his time with the MSO for the past seven years – seven years of plenty.

It is impossible to give a full account of all that this exceptionally illuminating experience had to offer; even the extensive program notes provided by Sir Andrew only go part of the way to describing the details of instrumentation, explaining the motivation behind them and conveying their effects. Fortunately, the Saturday night concert was broadcast directly from Hamer Hall and can be heard via ABC radio on the Internet. If you missed either concert or the direct broadcast, I would urge you to tune in; Mairi Nicolson’s interview with Sir Andrew is a fascinating interval break bonus. We can also look forward to the video material gathered from the two performances in a DVD.

Sir Andrew Davis photo credit Hugh Peachey.


Heather Leviston reviewed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of “Sir Andrew’s Messiah” given at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on December 8, 2019.

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