Review by Ailine Hess
A full performance of Handel’s Oratorio, “Messiah”, took place on Sunday, at Pioneer Memorial United Church in Hamilton. The orchestra and singers of Arcady under the direction of Ronald Beckett performed this masterpiece. Handel composed this work in 24 days, the libretto for the oratorio was arranged by Charles Jennens with lyrics drawn from the ‘King James Bible’ with the first performance in April 1741 In Dublin followed by a performance in London approximately a year later. The Arcady performance this evening was a similar size to the choir and the orchestra in Dublin.
The orchestra contained a string quartet, 2 trumpets, continuo and theorbo. The Arcady singers formed the chorus and each also had a solo role; a most unusual opportunity for the singers. Unfortunately, soloists’ names were not listed in the programme so for the purpose of this review, they remain a tenor, etc.
An orchestral Sinfonia opened the evening. Over the length of “Messiah” the orchestra played musically and accompanied sensitively, but the opening was a little tentative. That improved at the change of tempo with fugal texture. The Oratorio is in 3 parts. The first part includes prophesies about the birth and the actual birth of Jesus. The format includes recitative, aria, chorus. The soloists in this part performed with rich sound, good balance with the orchestra, showing great vocal technique in “Every valley” and by contrast, long melodic phrasing. In the chorus “And the Glory of God” the male singers slightly overpowered the women. It’s a nice problem in that chorus numbers often lack in male singers.
The choruses throughout the evening’s performance were very strong. The fugues were light and detached making it possible to hear each part. On rare occasions the sound was a bit too detached, choppy. When the full choir sang in unison, the sound tended to be overwhelming also potentially causing problems with balance. The chorus, “O thou that allest good tidings,” exhibited wonderful dynamic contrasts. The orchestra shone in the “Pastoral Symphony” with the dotted rhythms creating a lilting effect. “Glory to God” brought the entrance of the trumpet as he played in unison with the choir.
The second and third parts followed the intermission. The format was considerably different from the first part. There were more choruses and a section for solo tenor that led to the crucifixion of Christ. Musically, it was quite effective as the tenor told that part of the story. The aria, “He was despised” had lovely interplay between the soloist and strings. The soprano aria, “How beautiful are the feet” felt dance-like with the dotted rhythms in the orchestra. “Hallelujah” ends the second part and the audience rose. The tradition comes from the first London performance when it is supposed the King was present and stood. When the King stands, everyone stands. In reality, no one is sure if the King was present but it has become a tradition. With trumpets and orchestra accompanying, it was a rousing finish to Part 2. The third part emphasizes the Resurrection. As the soprano sang the long melodic lines of “I know that my Redeemer lives”; the orchestra contrasted with a rhythmic motif. The final chorus included good dynamic contrast as well as slow/fast sections.
Handel’s “Messiah” is an enduring work not just as a musical work of genius but also because of the story it tells. The Singers and Orchestra of Arcady brought the music to life.