A wall of sound: The Messiah, performed by the Bach Choir

I heard the Bach Choir of Wellington sing the Messiah on Sunday. It was wonderful. I have heard bits and pieces of the Messiah over the years, but the last time I heard the entire thing live was when I was a teenager.

The choir sang beautifully in some parts, and magnificently in others. Alto and basses were perhaps a little thin, ‘though their tone was lovely, but it seems that a few of them were missing due to illness. The four tenors held their own (tenors are very rare, and should you have a nice tenor voice and you can read music, any choir director will be only too pleased to see you), and the sopranos were lovely, especially in some of the long, held, very high notes, and extended high passages.

David Morriss was the bass soloist, and although he didn’t rage enough for my liking in “Why do the nations so furiously rage together”, he told a beautiful mystery in “Behold”, the recitative preceding “The trumpet shall sound”, which was fabulous, from both Morriss and the trumpeter. The alto and soprano soloists, Megan Hurnand and Amelia Ryman, both had beautiful moments, especially in their duet, ‘though possibly my liking for it was because I sing that piece myself. The passage I particularly remember was the second sequence from tenor singer Thomas Atkins, beginning with “All they that see Him laugh him to scorn”, and ending with “But Thou didst not leave his soul in hell”. His tone was gorgeous, but as well as beautiful notes, he told us a story, and spoke to us. Thomas Atkins is a very young man, and I think he is someone to watch for in future years.

The choir really was magnificent. In the Hallelujah Chorus, and the great Amen at the end, they produced a wall of sound, in which I could hear individual parts clearly, but the whole was enveloping. It was wonderful stuff.

But.

As my daughters and I drove down to Wellington for the performance, I told the girls about the tradition of standing up for the Hallelujah chorus. They were looking forward to taking part in it, only to find when we looked at our programmes that “The audience is requested to remain seated for the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus.”

WTF!

I know, the audience standing can be a noisy process, and it means that the sound from the choir can be muffled. But so what? A concert is a process, a joining between choir and orchestra and audience, not a display piece. I *wanted* to stand and hear the sound blasting at me, and participate in the moment with the choir, not sit passively in my seat. The choir gave a rockingly great performance of this wonderful chorus, and I wanted to leap up and shout for joy at the end of it. But at the end of the chorus, we sat tensely for a moment, before someone tentatively clapped, and then we all applauded, happily and loudly. The Hallelujah Chorus is a magnificent piece of music, and sitting quietly just doesn’t make sense. As an audience, we needed the release of standing, and then sitting. As for calling the audience back into the heart of the oratorio, the beautiful aria which follows it, “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, is enough. Asking the audience not to stand is just a bit bloody precious.

We still enjoyed the concert very much indeed. When we moved home to New Zealand, and to Greenhills*, we had in mind that Greenhills is only two hours drive from Wellington, so it is perfectly possible to go down there for a day. But we hadn’t really done so. When this concert came up, I thought that it was time to just do it. I love the Messiah, and I wanted to hear it live, so that was a good reason to go. And I have a beloved uncle who lives in Wellington, a man of loving heart and great erudition, who has inspired me since I was a small child, all the more so since I have become an adult. He was the first person to encourage me to do a PhD. I wanted to go and spend some time with him, and this concert was a wonderful way to do it. When the tenor soloist sang so beautifully, we leaned towards each other and both of us said, “Lovely”, and that made the moment even more special. In addition to those two good reasons, a dear friend of mine, a woman who has encouraged me to think and to sing, is in the choir, as a soprano, and her husband is in the tenor section. I have long wanted to hear their choir sing. Three good reasons for heading south for the day, each sufficient on their own.

In addition to all that, I spent the day with my lovely daughters, talking on the way down, sharing a picnic lunch in the Botanical Gardens, complete with the Etoile bread from Pandora that they love, talking some more on the way home. Ms Thirteen listened to the entire concert, but the Misses Ten listened to some, and read their books for the rest. We sat in the front row so that the girls could see, and it must have been somewhat disconcerting for the choir and orchestra to see them with their noses buried in their books, but at least they were there. They will absorb the music, and in years to come, they will remember this concert. Because we were sitting in the front row, I could see the celloist’s score, and watch the bass player’s bowing, and see the intricacies of the interaction between first and second violins. It made me intensely aware of the long continuo passages underpinning the melodies from the choir.

And for all the not standing, I am still buzzing with the music, and with the sensation of sound surrounding me. It was a great day out.

********************

* I’m sure that anyone with even the smallest sense of New Zealand geography will be aware of exactly which town I refer to as Greenhills. However, Mr Google isn’t, and for reasons of employment, that’s how I want to keep it.

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5 comments on “A wall of sound: The Messiah, performed by the Bach Choir

  1. Jennifer says:

    The Sydney Philharmonia Choir does a mass Messiah every year, which I went to see a few years ago. It is amazing to hear 400 voices belting out the Hallelujah chorus (and we were allowed to stand). It sounds lovely, and reminds me why I love live music. Envy time I go I vow to go more often.

    I sing tenor in my choir, for the reasons you mention, but sadly my voice isn’t quite low enough for a choir which sings classical music.

    And it took me ages to figure out which city Greenhills was, despite having a cousin who lives there and an uncle who I’d to teach at your University! I think Mr Google is safe for now.

  2. TimT says:

    It’s time to take a stand on not standing! It’s something to jump up and down about!

  3. mimbles says:

    Adam and I went to the Sydney Philharmonia performance at the Opera House a few years back too, unfortunately my experience of it was rather marred by him running late returning from Melbourne that afternoon and nearly missing the performance. I really ought to go again so I can enjoy it in a more relaxed state! In fact, we should take the kids, you’ve inspired me.

  4. Raymond A Francis says:

    Love the thought of your girls reading while the music surounded them
    Multi tasking at its best!

  5. Juliet Izatt says:

    That’s right – Sydney Philharmonia Choirs are singing it again at the Sydney Opera House on 8 10 11 December!

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