Article by Nic: “Messiah and Me”

On December 6, 2013 |
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‘MESSIAH AND ME’

Please don’t worry. This is not a piece about my religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) or a wish for a full immersion baptism (certainly not if the water is too cold) but merely a very personal history of Handel’s Messiah over the forty plus years that I have performed around the world.

I first encountered the piece when I was at school in Nottingham (UK), famous now as the setting of the myth of Robin Hood. In those days Handel’s oratorio was not performed in any version which the composer would have recognised but one edited by the slightly incongruously named Ebeneezer Prout. He took Mozart’s orchestration and added even more Victorian touches. As a result I was able to play a rather luxurious flute part which the original composer never dreamed of. Back then in the 1960’s we had never heard of historical performance, so the tempi were funereal throughout and countertenors were more likely to be found in a cathedral or the local pub than in a concert hall. Luckily Handel’s Messiah was in English so we did at least perform it in the original language unlike Bach’s Passions which were always translated. At an Eisteddfod in Carmarthen, I even heard Aida in Welsh!

By the time I got to University, the sunlight of historically informed performance was starting to brighten up almost every aspect of Messiah. At Cambridge, Thurston Dart and later Christopher Hogwood cheered up the tempos and encouraged the soloists to sing ornaments and cadenzas. Countertenors such as Alfred Deller and James Bowman were engaged to sing the alto solo arias (some of which were intended for castrati). Also the total number of performers was trimmed down to a more historically correct one. It should be noted here that the concept of an elephantine Messiah performance began as early as the 1780’s and lives on today as the sing-along. As a flute player I was now no longer asked to perform, since Handel’s score is flute-free. So I practiced my keyboard continuo skills so I could be engaged as a harpsichordist.

Some of the 1970’s performances I remember were somewhat hazardous. It was the beginning to the period instrument movement in the UK and on occasion the instruments got the better of the player. I particularly recall a “Trumpet shall sound” where the unfortunate expended so much effort on his natural trumpet to get to the top A near the opening that he fell over backwards and nearly passed out. That was the last we heard of him and the rest of the aria was played on the organ.

Jumping forward to the 1980’s, a favourite Messiah was one made for television conducted by Christopher Hogwood issued in 1982.

It is still available, and, if you look very closely at the photo on the cover, you’ll see a long- haired somewhat elfin fellow at the harpsichord who bears some resemblance to myself. We recorded it in Westminster Abbey in early January. The female soloists were wearing their best flouncy Laura Ashley dresses, which were all the rage then. But what you can’t tell looking at the DVD now is that, because the temperature in the Abbey hovered about freezing, the ladies had thick thermal underwear beneath their flimsy gowns. Indeed sometimes ectoplasm seemed to come from their mouths when they sang because it was so cold. I can remember wearing woolly gloves cut off at the top of each finger (à la Bob Cratchit in Dickens’A Christmas Carol). Indeed all orchestral players had them in those days since churches in the UK had no heating.

In that memorable performance were singers who remained friends for life: Emma (now Dame Emma) Kirkby, and David Thomas. But also the wonderful and much lamented Judith Nelson, who was then almost more well-known in the UK than she was in the Bay Area.

At the time of this performance I had already begun to spend more than half of each year in the USA and had embarked on a conducting career but had never actually conducted Messiah myself. That chance came in December 1986 about a year after I had moved to the Bay Area to work with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. I had come to the States to be an Artist in Residence at Washington University in St. Louis and it was there that I finally got to direct the work with the superb Symphony orchestra there. The soloists were amazing and included Lorraine Hunt and Jeffrey Thomas. Lorraine, then a soprano rather than a mezzo, had never performed the work either. So we two, soprano and conductor, both lost our Messiah virginities that week.

A few years later, Philharmonia finally performed and recorded the Messiah, also with Lorraine and Jeffrey and since then I have done well over a hundred times and in many cities around the globe. I love those with Phlharmonia the best. Our Orchestra and Chorale get closer to the soul of the piece than anyone I know. However it is always great to perform the piece with new groups and in other places. I remember doing one at the Millennium in Jerusalem and one at the Promenade Concerts in London with a chorus of three hundred singers from the National Youth Choirs from all over the UK. We nearly managed to raise the roof of the Albert Hall.

Not all performances were exciting for good reasons. In a later performance in St. Louis, someone in the audience blew his nose so loudly in the big pause just before the end that we could hardly play the final bars. The whole last AMEN dissolved into a peal of laughter from the stage. This débâcle even merited a letter to the local paper suggesting that if the nose-blower wished to join the St. Louis Symphony, he should take a formal audition.

I hope that I have still a lot more performances ahead of me. Each one has new joys, challenges and discoveries. One place I have yet to conduct the piece is Dublin, the city where it received it première in 1742. I’ve been to Fishamble Street, though the Music Hall is long gone. Its site is now a beautiful Garden and beside it is the brand new George Frideric Handel Hotel. I saw just after it opened; in the window of the G. F Handel Bar was a large sign reading:

HAPPY HOUR —–ALL DAY.

I think he would have been delighted!

NMcG.