Askonas Holt Artists on Handel’s ‘Messiah’

Christmas is almost upon us, and for musicians, Christmas time means Messiah time. Forget about the fact that Handel’s stirring oratorio of 1742 is more centred upon the Easter story than it is on Christmas (and indeed the Dublin premiere was in April). These days, the Messiah has become the figgy pudding of December’s musical feast, meaning that professional musicians can easily notch up a double-figure performance tally each festive season.

However, there’s something about the work that keeps it fresh and inviting, even to a performer on their umpteenth December rendition. We’ve asked Askonas Holt artists to reflect upon what that Something is, and also to tell us about their memorable experiences of performing it. On the latter point, their collective top tip must surely be, do not underestimate the potential for disaster attached to a Messiah tour of Spain…

Iestyn Davies, countertenor

“Handel’s Messiah is like an old friend who pops around once a year. When you finish December, it’s not that you never want to hear another one again, but you do think, “time to change the record”. Then, the following December, you blow the dust and cobwebs off your copy again, and all the work’s familiarity comes flooding back. The choruses are just so incredible. There’s also something about the opening chords of the sinfonia: it’s one of those ominous chords that says, ‘you’re in for a long evening….’.

One memorable performance I did was with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, touring Spain in December. We flew from Valencia to Madrid, to do the Messiah in the palace at El Escorial. However, when we arrived in Madrid, not a single suitcase had arrived with us. It was the day of the concert, so we had to perform in whatever we had travelled in. Mid-way through the performance, I remember looking around at the choir; one of the countertenors had a Nike T-shirt with a big tick on it saying, “Just do it”. In front of us, Harry Christophers was conducting with a Ted Baker T-shirt on. Meanwhile, the audience were very, very plush, all in their fur coats! At the end of “The trumpet shall sound”, the bass soloist, on a dare, changed the line “We shall be changed” to “We shall get changed”. He got a telling off from Harry Christophers for that!

Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano 

“The Messiah was always central to all the choirs I sang in; the Chesterfield Philharmonic, Derbyshire singers, the Bach Choir …and to the choirs in which my mother and grandparents sang too. My first professional engagement was a Messiah in Swadlincote Methodist chapel, where the ladies didn’t wear a uniform but they did take their hats off’!

I’ve done all styles, from baroque-instrumented orchestras through to the Mozart orchestration, to the Prout and Beecham/Goossens, played by the London Philharmonic, complete with clarinets, trombones and the rest. Likewise, I’ve performed it both with small professional choirs, and huge ‘come and sing’ versions where half the Royal Albert Hall were singing. I’ve also taken part in fully-staged performances. Somehow the work lends itself to all of these approaches, with its glorious mix of joy and grief, drama and spirituality. I loved singing in the choruses, and I adore being a soloist. It has been a recurring motif throughout my career. A sign of just how much it means to me is that the finale of my wedding was a hearty rendition of the ‘Hallelujah chorus’!”

Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-soprano

“Pretty much my first ever professional gig was a Messiah, with an amateur orchestra, and a choir singing from scratch. I won’t say where it was, other than it was somewhere in England…. The soloists didn’t rehearse with the choir. So, we got to the concert, sat through a pretty dire first half of the piece, and then we got to the ‘Hallelujah chorus’. Now this, of course, is one of the most famous pieces in the entire world, but when the choir opened their mouths and started to sing, it was not just unrecognisable, but completely butchered to the point where we couldn’t hold on to the giggles. Literally, the four of us soloists, our heads disappeared down into our laps as quickly as possible, and we shook our way through it! It’s the only time I’ve ever, ever laughed in a concert, and I’ve never encountered anything like it since.

I’m always happy to see the Messiah in my diary. Each time you perform it you find something new, and no matter how many times you hear it, it remains just as beautiful. If you look out into an audience, there’s always a sense of wonder from them too. I love the fact that it’s in English, so linguistically there’s no barrier. Obviously that ‘Hallelujah chorus’ is a very special moment, and utterly thrilling to hear”.

John Mark Ainsley, tenor

“Handel really knew what he was doing when he wrote the Messiah. The music is intellectually rigorous, but it also has that direct access to the buttons in the bit of your brain that gets excited and moved. In other words, it goes straight in at solar plexus level.

A few years ago, I did a staged version of the Messiah at the Coliseum with English National Opera, and the one thing I found absolutely extraordinary about every single performance was when we all sang the final chorus. Normally, as a soloist you’re stood apart from the chorus, but in this production the soloists were distributed amongst them on the stage, and standing in the middle of that great wedge of sound that an operatic choir can produce is the most extraordinary feeling: it’s like the whole thing is going through you. I’d forgotten that since my days as a young teenage tenor at the choral society at home in Worcester. So, that was a rare privilege.

One of the things about the Messiah is that in the few years after it was first performed, Handel wrote all sorts of alternative arias for people. So, as a soloist, it’s always as well to check who’s singing what. I have had the experience of sitting next to a colleague soprano who, when it came to one of the arias usually sung by tenor, sat firmly in her place until I had to say, “You’re on, this one’s you!” She was quivering as she stood up!”

Neal Davies, bass-baritone

“Back in 1998, I was on a big Messiah tour of Spain with the Gabrieli Consort. We did something really ridiculous like nine performances in ten days, and on about performance seven we had to get from Murcia, in Southern Spain, right up to in La Coruña in Northern Spain, changing flights in Madrid en route to get there for a performance at about 8pm. However, we got fogbound in Madrid, and at about 7.30pm we still hadn’t taken off. So, our Spanish audience just went off for a long dinner, and waited for us to turn up. I think we probably started the performance at about 11 o’clock at night, and when I had sung my tune (‘The people who have walked in darkness’!), I’m afraid I went to sleep on the stage. When I woke up, I turned to Charles Daniels who was next to me, and he was asleep as well! It’s the only time I’ve ever fallen asleep on stage.

Still, the music is wonderful, and it does have something to say even if you’re completely exhausted and would rather be in your hotel room having a sleep. No matter how many times you’ve sung it, there’s always some point in the performance where the music, or the performance, or what a certain performer does, or just seeing an audience reaction, lifts it and makes it all feel worthwhile. My favourite bit that I sing is “The trumpet shall sound”. My favourite part of the whole thing (and it’s not because it’s the end) is the ‘Amen chorus’. Even if it’s been a really long, tiring day, that always raises the spirits.

You also always have the thrill of, are the audience going to stand up to the ‘Hallelujah chorus’ or not. It’s the waiting game you play with everybody else on stage. Sometimes, people sing along, which is hysterical. And then of course we’re obliged to stand up with them and hum and sing along, otherwise they look a bit disappointed. It’s what they’ve come for, to stand up. They love it. It sort of proves to everyone that they know the piece and they know the traditions. On another long tour, this time with Les Arts Florissants, we ended up on the 23rd December at the Konzerthaus in Berlin, and just one man stood up for the entire ‘Hallelujah chorus’. We came to the conclusion he was probably the British ambassador!”

Robin Trischler, tenor

“When I was studying singing at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, passing by a certain street in Dublin would often cause me to pause: the first performance of Messiah was given in the Music Hall on Fishamble Street in 1742, sung by the massed choirs of the two Dublin Cathedrals. The Music Hall was demolished long ago and the street is now lined with modern apartments and offices, but as a student I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like to be amongst the audience over 250 years ago, hearing the ‘Hallelujah chorus’ for the very first time. Today, every April 13th, and no matter what the weather, Our Lady’s Choral Society erect a small stage where the Music Hall used to be, and sing Messiah to hundreds of supportive Dubliners. I have been fortunate enough to have performed this piece over a hundred times across the world, and to have witnessed the universal appeal and adoration of this work. Still though, there is something special about performing at these annual Dublin commemorations. The ownership of this Oratorio is now truly global, but a critical moment of its history will forever belong to this small corner of Dublin”.

Paul Goodwin, conductor

“I conducted a memorable performance with a boys choir from Germany called the Tölzer Knabenchor. We were on a tour of Spain, and they all went out for a meal before the performance and fell ill. I remember conducting the piece as, one by one, the boys’ faces gradually went green, then they stopped singing, and literally ran offstage to throw up. This happened over a period of about twenty minutes, and by the end I was down to about six or seven sopranos, and six or seven altos, who were these little guys: it was only the youngest boys who seemed to survive. Perhaps they didn’t have the same meal as the ten-year-olds. My memory is of not seeing them, but seeing the width of their mouths as they opened as wide as they could to sing their hearts out. It was absolutely glorious to see. That was a very bizarre and wonderful moment.

I have a very large facsimile of the conducting score that Handel had at the end of his life. He did five or six different versions of the Messiah, and they’re all marked in. I like to do a particular version all the way through, as he did it then, rather than doing as some do and making cuts. Then actually, if you keep everything in and do it his way, the architecture makes it feel shorter than a cut version”.

© Charlotte Gardner

Messiah performances around the world:

Brindley Sherratt with Handel & Haydn Society, Boston (28-30 November)

Neal Davies
 and Iestyn Davies in Munich  (29 & 30 November)

Robin Tritschler and Joelle Harvey with North Carolina Symphony (5 – 7 December)

Sophie Bevan, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and John Mark Ainsley with Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: Royal Festival Hall, London (9 December) and Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona (15 & 16 December)

Robert Murray and Jonathan Lemalu with the Academy of Ancient Music: Barbican, London (10 December), Madrid (16 & 17 December) and Ghent (19 December)

Neal Davies in Ulster (12 & 13 December)

James Rutherford at the Royal Albert Hall, London (14 & 19 December)

Rebecca Evans – Cardiff Polyphonic Choir (14 December)

Neal Davies and Jennifer Johnston in Huddersfield (16 & 17 December)

Iestyn Davies with New York Philharmonic (16-20 December)

Paul Goodwin with Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in Milwaukee:17, 18, 19, 20, 21 December

David Soar with BBC Singers (19 & 20 December)

Neal Davies and Iestyn Davies with Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in London (22 & 23 December)

Nathalie Stutzmann, Susan Gritton, John Mark Ainsley and Brindley Sherratt with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, 10 January 2015

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