Glorious and enriching

2011-11-17 00:00

IF George Frederic Handel’s father had had his way, the Hallelujah Chorus would never have been written.

A no-nonsense surgeon-barber, he was a practical man determined to send his son to law school, refusing for several years to allow him to take lessons even though he showed extraordinary musical talent. Fortunately, he eventually relented and we have reaped the musical benefits.

Messiah was written in 24 days in a small house in Brook Street in London. Handel rarely left the room and hardly ate during this time. On the 24th day, when the servant opened the door to the composer’s room to deliver his meal, Handel turned to him, tears streaming down his face and cried out: “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.” He had just finished writing the movement that would take its place in history as the Hallelujah Chorus.

Messiah premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742, as a charity benefit, raising £400 and freeing 142 men from debtor’s prison.

A year later, it was staged in London where on hearing the first notes of the triumphant Hallelujah Chorus ring out, the king of England, George II, rose to his feet. Following royal protocol, the entire audience followed suit, establishing a tradition that has lasted more than three centuries.

The Pietermaritzburg Amateur Music Society (Pams), under the very ­competent baton of conductor Robin Walton, acquitted itself very well. Walton’s obvious love of Messiah showed through in his precise and thoughtful conducting.

He adhered to Handel’s concept of a small orchestra with only strings, cello continuo, organ, oboe, bassoon and contrabass with trumpet and timpani used in certain sections. Special mention must be made of cellist Nigel Fish, who stood out with an outstanding performance which he sustained for three hours.

Also notable was orchestra leader Angus Kerr (first violin) with a very strong string section. Violinist David Plank showed his musical versality, moving between first violin and timpani with equal ease. The orchestra was also very lucky to have with it well-known organist Christopher Cockburn, who gave a fine performance.

The choir, comprising 76 male and female singers, was very different from Handel’s original 20 all-male group. They gave their hearts and souls to the music and were a delight to watch. The handling of some very difficult material by these amateur singers was impressive, and when they came together as a whole group they had some lovely strong moments.

The soloists were also delightful. Particularly impressive were tenor Sibonelo Mbanjwa and bass Andrew Buckland who looked down at their scores very ­little, conveying the glorious text to the audience with their eyes as well as their voices.

Soprano Michele Corbin had some soaring moments in How beautiful are the Feet and I know that my Redeemer liveth as did contralto Aukse Trinkunas in He was despised and O Thou that tellest good tidings to Zion.

Messiah has always been about the shared communal experience and tradition, and that feeling of a shared experience was very evident on Sunday when the audience showed its appreciation with a standing ovation.

The conductor, soloists, choir and orchestra deserve full marks for a job well done, and Pams for having an ­understanding of what an involvement in music can do for people. It enriches us and unites us for those few hours, reminding us of our humanity. The capacity audiences at both performances ­reinforced the value of what organisations such as Pams are doing. Hats off to them.

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