Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Handel's Messiah

What is it about Handel’s Messiah that continues to move and thrill us year after year? George Frideric Handel wrote many oratorios in addition to the Messiah, and many of them are often performed. But perhaps no other works of the composer, none of his operas and oratorios, popular as they are in their own right, have achieved the universal appeal of this one single work. Every Christmas, we will find presentations of Handel’s Messiah in many different countries all over the world, performed by ensembles making up of the world’s greatest singers and orchestras to church choirs with piano accompaniment. Years ago, a recording of Handel’s oratorio came out of communist China, an officially atheistic country that continues to persecute Christians, especially Catholics, sung in Mandarin!

In Vancouver, the annual performance of Handel’s Messiah is usually done by one of three major choirs in the city. This year the honour went to the Vancouver Chamber Choir, a professional choir making up of trained and experienced singers, augmented by the Pacifica Singers, and conducted by Jon Washburn. The four soloists - Yulia Van Doren, Laura Pudwell, Colin Balzer and Tyler Duncan – did an outstanding job with the various recitatives and arias. I particular enjoyed the timbre of the two male voices and what they did with their respective solos. Soprano Yulia Van Doren has an extremely beautiful voice, but I feel that the clarity of her diction suffers a bit at the expense of this beautiful sound. All the soloists exuded palpable pleasure in what they did.

As much as the arias and recitatives were beautiful in the Messiah, the various choruses are for me the crown jewels of the work. The two choirs did a magnificent job Saturday evening, singing the music with lightness, agility, and much joy. Jon Washburn did a credible job in keeping all the performing forces together; I do, however, miss the energy that Bernard Labadie brought to the work in a previous performance, as well as his pacing of the music.

Why do audiences continue to flock to performances of Handel’s Messiah?

In attempting to become inclusive, our city, in fact, the western world, thought that one must erase one’s own traditions and customs and beliefs to make room for “the others”. Christianity is being rejected for a wide range of “reasons” by those who come from or brought up in such a tradition. The trend, at least for the last decade, has been to reject anything that has to do with one’s parents, one’s parents’ generation, European-centred or European-originated. This whole discussion of Diversity and Inclusiveness has been taken to mean rejecting out of hand anything western, rather than becoming INclusive – to include one’s own roots and traditions, including religion if religion is part of one’s makeup, while exploring, respecting, and understanding others’ cultures, beliefs, traditions, languages, and religions.

We therefore live in a time when Christianity has been increasingly marginalized from our consciousness as well as from the public square. When I witness the continued popularity of the Messiah, I can only assume, or hope, that there exists within all of us a yearning for the message contained within this magnificent work of art, brought alive by the genius of George Frideric Handel.

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