Messiah Through New Eyes is a Thought-provoking Experience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Hannah Conway and Handel: Schoolchildren from La Retraite RC School, Clapham Park; St Paul’s Way Trust School; and Westminster City School; Mary Bevan (soprano); Reginald Mobley (counter-tenor); Thomas Hobbs (tenor); Christopher Purves (baritone); Academy of Ancient Music Chorus & Orchestra / Richard Egarr (director/harpsichord). Barbican Hall, London, 20.12.2017. (CC)

Conway – A Young Known Voice (2017, World Premiere)

HandelMessiah, HWV 56 (1741)

Hannah Conway’s piece A Young Known Voice, which is an outcome of a project entitled Messiah Who?, explores contemporary responses to Handel’s Messiah viewed through the eyes of today’s youth. As part of a six-day experience, the entire libretto was laid out on a school floor; schoolchildren were let loose on the text to find passages that resonated with their lives today. Themes of ostracisation (an obvious problem in Jesus’ life) and of bias predominated, from the negative reaction of parents when a child announces her homosexuality to the cry ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together?’.

The promise from Conway was that ‘tonight you will hear Messiah differently’. The text for A Young Known Voice was reproduced in the booklet (that of Messiah itself was not). The approximately 50 young people (who then had to sit through the entirety of the Handel on stage – more of a challenge to some than for others) joined the AAM Choir and Orchestra, with various children coming forward to read out passages of text at various points. Elements of African American Spiritual rubbed shoulders with statements (obviously not directly from the Handel) that ‘We chose to leave the EU. They elected Trump. One man’s trash is another’s treasure’. In this spirit, the line ‘are people scared of the truth?’ is musically counterpointed with ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage’. Conway, who has worked extensively with this sort of collaborative project, fashioned an effective piece, one that certainly succeeded in engaging the audience: some shouting from the back of the auditorium was met with consternation from other quarters and a swift exit encouraged by an usher of an obviously disgruntled audience member. If the intent was to stir up things, they succeeded.

Conway’s piece is obviously rooted in Handel’s, and one questions indeed if it could be performed as a stand-alone piece in its own right. It was an interesting experiment in bringing home truths to an audience via a mid-eighteenth century piece.

The Messiah was performed in the oboeless Dublin version for the 1743 premiere. Oratorio as sacred opera is a vital part of understanding Handel’s output; in the pre-concert talk, Egarr also referred to how we used to see this music, referencing the cylinders made in 1888 of Israel in Egypt at Crystal Palace (available, unbelievably, on YouTube here). With his small orchestra and 17-voice incisive choir, Egarr’s was a streamlined Messiah. Interruptive applause between movements early on threatened to make this a very long evening (the interruptions diminished although it was a long evening: advertised to finish at 9.35pm, it was 10.10pm when I exited the hall). There was also a mini-break after ‘For unto us a child is born’ in Part One.

The soloists were a nicely mixed bunch. Top of the tree, and not just in terms of range, was Mary Bevan’s exquisite, intimate soprano, so perfectly polished an instrument and with not a hint of glare as it reaches towards the higher register. While counter-tenor Reginald Mobley took time to warm up in Part One (the registral break in his voice all too obvious), his perfect lead-in to ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion’ seemed to announce a personal arrival point from which there was no return. ‘He was despised’ was a highpoint of the performance in its heartfelt eloquence and declamatory power. Tenor Thomas Hobbs began the work vocally with a suave ‘Comfort ye’ and he found plenty of strength in Part Two. The experienced baritone Christopher Purves proved remarkably agile, reaching full-heat ferocity in ‘Why do the Nations’, while he was joined by the magnificently clarion trumpeter David Blackadder for ‘The Trumpet shall sound’ (as opposed to Trump shall sound, of course – he had his moment earlier on).

The AAM Chorus was a little miracle. Egarr took the chorus ‘He trusted in God’ at such a lick that it emerged as proto-Mendelssohnian in its lightness; the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus (with most but not all standing) nevertheless had heft and gravitas. The Academy orchestra itself reacted to Egarr’s energetic direction with aplomb and, at times, stunning accuracy at speed.

All in all, this was an elevating evening, a Messiah with a contemporary spin. I notice with amusement that the schools’ accompanist in the project team boasts the surname Lazarus: perhaps, though, we are not quite raising Messiah from the dead here, just enabling something of a revivification in our experience. Messiah through new eyes; if not quite revelatory, this was certainly a thought-provoking experience.

Colin Clarke

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