Gloriana: Messiah

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Published: 15th December, 2014

Performances of Handel’s Messiah come in all shapes and sizes and in all manner of venues. The Gloriana Chamber Choir and Orchestra joined with the Choir of St Peter’s Eastern Hill in a chamber-sized performance in a venue that was a reminder that Christmas is a sacred event rather than the all too secular celebration it is becoming.

St Peter’s Eastern Hill is a relatively intimate setting: beautiful with its stained glass windows and background of golden mosaic tiles, without being overly ornate or intimidating. The acoustics are not as reverberant as those of Sacred Heart, Carlton, where the Gloriana forces performed their recent Monteverdi Vespers to great effect, but music-friendly nonetheless.

Director Andrew Raiskums chose to stay closest to the 1750 version of Handel’s score, although some cuts were made to Parts II and III of the work. A very small contingent of strings (2, 2, 1, 1 plus violone) was complemented by two Baroque oboes, Baroque trumpet, timpani and harpsichord. Although the strings were a little tentative in some places, the small band of players generally worked well together, with the continuo instruments providing a reliable support to the singers and Louisa Trewartha giving a stirring account of the trumpet part, most notably of course in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” and the final chorus. Raiskums ensured that tempi were kept buoyant without being rushed.

The nature of soloist voices is fairly straight forward with the exception of the alto part. In this case the young countertenor Maximilian Riebl was the singer of choice. Given that Handel’s Messiah is likely to remain a compulsory part of Christmas celebrations in Australia, it was clear from the outset that Riebl will more than likely be singing the alto solos countless times in the future. Added to a beautiful tone, flexibility and the ability to sing a long phrase was a tasteful expressiveness and use of ornamentation – all of which added up to a performance well worth going out of your way to hear.

Andrew Raiskums chose another young star on the rise, Jacob Lawrence, as the tenor soloist. With the task of opening vocal proceedings with “Comfort ye”, Lawrence also immediately established himself as a singer with fine vocal control. Without any danger of being over elaborate, his ornamentation was exemplary throughout the evening. He has a most appealing tenor sound with a slight shade of a baritone quality, perhaps accentuated a little by the lower Baroque pitch. Equally at ease were soprano Emily Ulrich and bass baritone Nick Dinopolous. The lower pitch appeared to pose no problems for the Dinopolous, who sang with his customary engagement with the drama of the text. Ulrich’s clear, precise soprano was particularly effective in “Rejoice greatly”.

Of the many choirs in Melbourne, Gloriana Chamber Choir must be one of the few that has evenly distributed numbers through the four voice types. This was maintained even with the inclusion of members of the Choir of St Peter’s. Furthermore, there were some exceptionally strong, pure sopranos and some fine voices in the other parts. Despite the thunderstorm that kept half of Melbourne awake the previous night, the choir gave a lively account of the many choruses, singing with precision and commitment. There was no danger of going astray like the sheep in the ominous chorus that predicts such an unwelcome fate. Moments of beautifully atmospheric blending of voices in the more solemn moments were contrasted with stirring outbursts. Everybody stood for the “Hallelujah!” chorus, emphasising the ritual nature of this component of Christmas musical festivities.

A short welcoming speech by the Vicar, Dr Hugh Kempster, and the Christmas cake and bubbles served at interval, when performers and audience mingled, were reminders of the intrinsic function of this kind of music. Even the most hardened atheist could not help but be struck by the sense of fellowship and sharing that is the essence of Christmas and was a feature of this event.

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Heather Leviston reviewed this performance of Messiah at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, on December 6, 2014.

The picture was supplied by St Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill.