Thursday, December 5, 2013

Revisiting a Tradition

What is it about George Frideric Handel’s Messiah that the Advent season seems incomplete without it? More than any other musical works, Handel’s Messiah has become synonymous with the Christmas season. And so, every December choirs and orchestras, professional and semi-professional, put on performances of this enduring masterpiece. Whatever the quality of the singing or playing, every performance of Handel’s Messiah is sure to bring in the crowds. In Vancouver, the three major choirs usually take turns performing the work in consecutive years.

This year, I elected to attend the Messiah performance given by the performing forces of the University of British Columbia’s School of Music, comprising of the University Singers, and Choral Union, and the UBC Symphony Orchestra.  Soloists for the Oratorio were drawn from the voice department of the school – wonderful opportunities for the young singers of the school.

Although not using any period instruments, the performance was a strong and authentic one. The two choirs acquitted themselves admirably, especially in the many fast melismatic passages, where they carried off with lightness and with panache. It was a nice touch to include counter-tenor Shane Hansen in Part Three’s recitative (“Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written; Death is swallow’d up in victory.”) and duet (“O Death, where is thy sting?”). The soloists gave credible performances of their various recitatives and arias, the highlight being soprano Stephanie Nakagawa’s performance. Of all the soloists, I felt that she had the most mature voice and musicianship. Moreover, I got the feeling that she meant the words that she sang.

Far worthier and more knowledgeable writers have already written about the greatness of Handel’s Messiah. For me, what was most moving was to see the young singers in the two choirs, who must all be, at this time of year, overwhelmed by assignments and exams, taking time out for the many rehearsals and the performance. Many of the singers, especially in the Choral Union, are not even Music majors. Yet they were there, students of every background and ethnicity, singing with conviction those words in praise of the glory of God and the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. It does not matter what one’s religious convictions are, Handel’s Messiah is not just a piece of music where beautiful words are set to beautiful music, but part of a tradition in our human culture, our civilization, our very being. This, I believe, is something that we must never take for granted. To erase that would be to erase part of the history of humanity.

We live in what some have termed a “post-Christian society”, in a time when Christianity is gradually being pushed to the margins of society, where one’s Christian faith is not something to be brought up at dinner parties, at risk of opening up oneself to ridicule. Judging from the reaction of the very enthusiastic audience, I can only conclude that these words from the Bible still resonate within us, consciously or subconsciously, whether we choose to admit it or not. It gives me hope to hear this music being performed in the very secular environment of a university.

But that evening, we live in a world where music was just what it is, something that transcends our existence, and connects us with the past.

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