For the love of tradition

2007-11-29 00:00

AS Handel’s Messiah struck its first chord last Sunday afternoon at the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity, I could almost hear the church’s doors clanging shut behind us with a great big sign stuck to them: “Only hard-core Maritzburgers welcome!”

For this was the first of the Brave New World of Maritzburg Messiahs. No more the professional soloists; no more the challenging vast space of the city hall. This was a re-thought version of our 144-year tradition, one that tried to face up to 21st-century realities — realities that include less money and fewer choristers.

So, did it work?

Well, the audience numbers would have left the city hall feeling depressingly half-empty, but they packed the cathedral to the gills. That was nice. But being in a church meant we had to deal with those bum-numbing pews. The more ruthless (or piles-inflicted?) perched on hassocks — which was a bit of a bore for those of us stuck behind them. What with there being no proper stage, our view of the performers was restricted enough as it was. There were, for example, some lovely sounds coming from the brass and woodwind sections of the orchestra. I would have liked to see who was producing them. No chance of that, thanks to the high-floating grey bob of the woman in front of me.

With a good deal of craning, I did get to see the soloists. We kicked off with the tenor, Sibonelo Mbanjwa.

“Well, I’m looking forward to hearing a bit more of him,” I thought — only to glance down the programme and discover that, what with the eccentricities of the new, brutally pared-down Messiah, the first we heard of him was also the last. The bass, Andrew Butler, gave us some manly moments. As for the soprano and the alto, well, I suppose they did their best.

When it came to the chorus, the smaller venue theoretically should have worked to the advantage of their sad-realities-of-modern-times dwindling numbers.

For most of the time, alas it didn’t. There’s clearly something very weird on the go with Maritzburg’s water. It produces lots of sterling altos and baritones, but fails to deliver with the sopranos and tenors. And sopranos and tenors are, let’s face facts, rather essential to a choir if it wants to do a Handelesque “wall of sound” to full, thrilling effect.

I perked up a bit when they let rip with the Hallelujah Chorus, though. In fact, I almost forgot my pew-numbed bottom. (God bless King George II for starting the tradition of standing up for it. Maybe he was in a pew too.) Suddenly, the choir had upped their game.

When they got to Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain and the Amen, they were a transformed lot, handing in the marrow-throbbing ecstacies by the bucket load. The orchestra also peaked at the right time.

So, all said and done, did the new-style Messiah work?

In terms of new venue, no — despite how full it felt. The oratorio needs the city hall’s baroque beauty to nudge one into the right, elevated mood.

In terms of being pared down and unashamedly amateur? Well, yes, at a push.

There was a definite audience feeling of rooting along with the performers who were doing it just for the love of tradition. No more the need to judge this cultural icon by world standards. Now we can just enjoy it for what it is — a beautiful Maritzburg institution, for hard-core Maritzburgers only.

As I was leaving, rather hoping my car would still be there in Langalibalele Street, I overheard a woman say: “Considering they were all amateurs, it was so moving.” She’d just about summed it up.

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