RMP at Christmas: Messiah & Carols

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Published: 16th December, 2014

There’s a kind of loud, piercing whistle that Australian audiences sometimes use to signify appreciation for a top performance. The Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra enjoyed plenty of them – along with standing ovations and encores – for Handel’s Messiah and a week later, three long performances of carols at the beautiful St Paul’s Cathedral.


Messiah is a story, told in a linear way – and what a story it is! The first part is probably the reason this work is so popular at Christmas, being about anticipation and then Christ’s birth, with angels and shepherds featuring prominently in the music. The chorus For unto us a child is born is one of the best in the work (even with stiff competition from the Hallelujah Chorus).

The RMP’s director and conductor, Andrew Wailes, had already demonstrated the fine qualities of the orchestra from the opening Sinfony (Overture), as respectful of the precise dotted notes as of the contrasting tempi. The 30 or so musicians, including harpsichordist David Macfarlane, proved a sympathetic and steady support to all four soloists – soprano Rachelle Durkin, mezzo Deborah Humble, tenor John Longmuir and bass baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes – with many well-loved solos coming in the First Part.

All four soloists were worthy of the great music entrusted to them but, perhaps because of the dramatic intensity of their solos, the lower voices of Humble and Tahu Rhodes were outstanding. Humble’s strong operatic sensibility informed her entire performance, from the recitative “Behold, a Virgin shall conceive” through “He was despised” in which her deep-toned mezzo lent drama to the text. A final duet with Longmuir in the exultant “O Death, where is thy sting?” was a triumph for both. Durkin had the sweetness and range required for the soprano part; her vibrato was secure but at times blurred the ornamentation that she otherwise delivered well.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes – with some great arias to perform – gave a performance that appeared effortless. The authoritative sound of “Thus saith the Lord”, and the vocal gymnastics of “Why do the nations?” were surpassed by “The trumpet shall sound” in which Tahu Rhodes seemed to unleash the full power of his voice. With no loss of tonal quality it became the dominant “instrument” beside the trumpets of Mark Fitzpatrick and Alison Wright, and Louis Sharpe’s timpani.

These three had subtly joined the strings-dominated ensemble earlier for the performance of Hallelujah, at the end of Part Two. As this is the standard by which a Messiah choir is inevitably judged, it is a reasonable starting point to discuss the RMP’s performance on the night. There are many challenges in the work, among them long passages of counterpoint – at speed; another can be entries that are high-pitched or without an obvious reference point.

The choir, like the orchestra, was well rehearsed. This was not a perfect Messiah– there were a couple of glitches – but it was overwhelmingly one that sounded professional and drew the audience in to the story through the power of the music, and the beauty of its sound. Phrasing, tempi, dynamics, diction: all were beautifully realised thanks to Wailes. The altos anchored the great swell of sound, as sopranos hit the heights and the men mustered their voices, especially for the final “Blessings”. More than this was the singers’ passion for the music, disciplined but evident – and well communicated to the audience. Wailes had encouraged the audience to stand for Hallelujah and they happily remained there to applaud.

That was like a rehearsal for the end of the work, when a standing ovation persuaded Wailes to deliver an encore – Hallelujah, of course  this time with audience and soloist participation. With the great Town Hall organ swelling the sound and the emotion, there was only one thing left for the audience to do as the performers took their well-earned bows: to stand, clap, cheer, yell “bravo!” … and whistle!

Carols in the Cathedral

Over 150 members of the RMP Choir, Melbourne University Choral Society and 50 members of the Australian Children’s choir were joined by fine soloists: pianists Stefan Cassomenos and Amir Farid, organist Geoffrey Urquhart, flautist Christopher Clark and harpist Jacinta Dennett, and readers Roland Roccheccioli and Julie Houghton. Star guest David Hobson delighted with O Holy Night and The Holy City, the power of his voice best suited to the latter.

The generous three-hour concert highlighted the choir’s strengths, which were all-encompassing: from the 15th century Make we joy now in this Fest, with its stirring brass fanfare, to the children’s performance of There is no Rose by John Rutter. Among the lesser-known carols I found Sally de Ford to be a composer of interest – and it was good to hear Australian carols by Peter Sculthorpe and William G James, with the chance to join in the singing of his Christmas Day (“The North Wind is tossing the leaves”).

There were no less than eight opportunities to raise the roof with audience participation in well-loved carols, such as O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to The World, Once in Royal David’s City and the concluding Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. With some in the audience even joining in the descants, and Wailes taking these carols as seriously as all the others, there was an exciting wall of sound – and a sense that Christmas was still well worth celebrating.

The RMP says that Wailes started doing the Christmas concerts in 2000, and they have grown in popularity to the point where three performances are required each year to cope with demand from the public. Wailes’ belief is  that the Carols in the Cathedral concerts are firmly established as a much anticipated Christmas tradition in Melbourne which complements the RMP’s annual performance of Handel’s Messiah.

Long may this tradition flourish!

Suzanne Yanko reviewed the RMP’s performance at  the Melbourne Town Hall on December 14 and Carols on the evening of December 20..

The picture by  Rod Scanlon shows soloist Deborah Humble, with Andrew Wailes conducting.