Voices raise to occasion

Handel's Messiah, ANU Choral Society, St Christopher's Church, Manuka, October 21.

By Graham McDonald

The Messiah is a bit like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, with one piece that everyone knows surrounded by competent but unremarkable stuff on either side. As the ANU Choral Society's musical director Jonathan Powles suggests in his notes on this performance, a performance of the Messiah is as much social ritual as a musical event, with elements such as the peculiar practice of the audience rising to its feet during the famous Hallelujah chorus, but strangely not joining in.

St Christopher's was full for this first Messiah of the season, and the ANU Choral Soceity sang marvellously. The female voices especially have a delightful musical quality, and the precise entries that I had noticed at a concert last year are still very much obvious, suggesting much dedicated rehearsal and coaching to achieve such a consistent standard. the choral section was well structured, with the 60 or so voices of the choir enough to get a rich, full sound, yet not so massive as to blur the individual parts. Thus it was able to produce some well defined and balanced chords.

The four soloists all sang well, and it should be noted that mezzo-soprano Angela Giblin stepped in at a day's notice to replace the scheduled singer, who was taken ill. The limitations of space in St Christopher's meant that the soloists sang from one side of the stage and got off the stage entirely when not actually singing. The choirs were crammed on to portable bleacher seats, on to which they had to sit between choruses, and teh clambering up an down did seem a struggle for a few of the more elderly members.

Unfortunately, the orchestra was not quite up to the standard of the singers. There was at least one violinist who resolutely stuck to his or her own sense of pitch throughout, regardless of what the rest of the orchestra was doing, and the trumpets in The Trumpet Shall Sound were just too loud for the soloist. It was an occassion in which a baroque trumpet would have been more suitable.

St Christopher's is a venue that works well acousticaly, but has a downside in it having little room for this many performers, and minimal lighting meant both soloists and conductor were in shadow most of the time. And 2 and a half hours was a long time to sit on a church pew.