Handel’s Messiah

Handel’s Messiah
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Concert Hall Sydney Opera House. 8, 10 and 11 December, 2022

What a sound! The Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Orchestra led by the inimitable Brett Weymark bringing Handel’s magnificent Messiah back to the Concert Hall of the Opera House!

What a sight! The shining, intent faces of 523 choristers and 27 musicians following the Weymark baton!  What a thrill to hear soprano Lorina Gore, mezzo soprano Ashlyn Tymms, tenor Nicholas Jones and baritone Morgan Pearse sing the arias and duets – and smile as the choirs rise to sing the choruses.

What a thrill to be part of the enthralled audience rising to its feet – as tradition dictates – for the inspiring Hallelujah Chorus!  

Image: Brett Weymark. Photographer: Keith Saunders.

The tradition of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus began, it is said, when King George II was so ‘dazzled’ when he heard it for the first time, that he rose to his feet. When the King rose, so did everyone else! And so the tradition continues.

Messiah at Christmas – that too is a tradition. But it was originally written to be performed at Easter. It was Easter when it was first performed, on 13th April 1742 in Dublin, Ireland, 280 years ago. It wasn’t until the 1790s that it began to be performed at Christmas – and that was in London.

Though Messiah traces the life of Jesus Christ, many of the words of the libretto were taken from the Old Testament. It is believed the librettist, Charles Jennens, did so to prove that the story of Christ was completely foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament.

For example, the chorus “For unto us a child is born” comes from Isiah (9:6); “Rejoice greatly … He is the righteous Saviour” comes from the prophet Zechariah (9: 9-10); and “I know that my Redeemer liveth” is from the prophet Job (19: 25-26). All written many, many years before the birth of Christ.

And yet Messiah was criticised as being “sacrilegious and heretical” by some, especially if being performed outside “proper places of worship”. Conversely, when Handel scheduled a performance in Westminster Abbey, some members of the clergy declared it sacrilege for a “public entertainment” to take place in a consecrated church. Poor Handel!

Messiah has a charitable history. That first performance in Dublin was a benefit performance for charity. It raised £400 and freed 142 men from debtors’ prison. From 1750 Handel himself directed annual charity performances at London’s Foundling Hospital. He even left a copy of the score and performance parts to the Foundling Hospital on his death in 1759. 

Easter-time performances of Messiah continued each year at London’s Foundling Hospital until the 1770s. That’s why conductor Brett Weymark, when in London, always walks past the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury “as a kind of cultural homage” to this work that “is about more than the notes on the page”. 

Perhaps this seems like too much ‘history’ for a review, but an oratorio that is so popular, that is performed annually in so many places around the world – and that is known, even in part, by so many people – makes history. And today all those little anecdotes are available on line to pique the curious and add to the splendour and allure of this work that has charmed the world for 280 years.

The Sydney Philharmonia Choirs bring that splendour to the Concert Hall again on Saturday and Sunday at 1pm. If you’re lucky there may be some seats available to hear these wonderful singers from all over Sydney.

If you’re very lucky – and very observant – you might even see a special ‘member’ of the Choirs. She’s a beautiful white Maremma dog who is trained as a mobility assistance friend. Her name is Jewel and she is just over 5 years old. If you look carefully you’ll even see she has a little black stage tuxedo. We watch Jewel every performance. She sits calmly through every performance, head on her paws. Her owner must be very proud of her. See if you can find her in the photographs.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “Handel is not a mere composer in England; he is an institution. What is more, he is a sacred institution.” Messiah is not a mere oratorio. It too is an institution. Sydney Philharmonia Choirs have made it a special December institution for Sydney audiences.

Carol Wimmer

Performance photographer: Simon Crossley-Meates

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