Messiah, who?: The Academy of Ancient Music bring old and new voices together

Director Richard Egarr was a fizzing bundle of energy throughout the
performance: swivelling swiftly from his wheeled piano-stool and leaping
from his harpsichord to galvanise his 17-person chorus with swishing
arm-sweeps, dynamically indicating rhythmic counterpoints and, sometimes
extreme and always precisely nuanced, dynamic contrasts. The orchestra of
the AAM were alert to every gesture. The overture eschewed the commonly
heard double-dotting, Egarr also preferring a more legato bow stroke than
we may be used to. The AAM’s playing was prevailingly fresh and spirited,
though at times I felt that it was a little bottom-heavy, the organ
dominating occasionally – perhaps the absence of oboes was a contributing factor?

I like my Messiahs to unfold like an opera, each number
progressing segue into the next, the drama accruing compelling
narrative and musical momentum. In this context, tenor Thomas Hobbs’
opening recitative and aria (‘Comfort Ye’ and ‘Every Valley’) felt a little
too emphatic for my taste. But, not only did Egarr increasingly put his
foot on the accelerator pedal often to thrilling effect – and it was fortunate that the Barbican audience quickly decided not to applaud each number – but Hobbs, too,
came into his own in Part 2: ‘Thy rebuke’ really did evoke a heart broken,
full of heaviness, while ‘Behold and see’ was assuaging, paradoxically
urgent and soothing.

Countertenor Reginald Mobley took a little while to warm up. His voice has
undoubted beauty and grace, but it rather lacked focus and weight in ‘But
who may abide’, where the registral transitions felt cumbersome. But, the
fluidity of ‘He shall feed his flock’ suited Mobley’s effortless lyricism
perfectly. ‘He was despised’, sung absolutely off score, was one of the
highpoints of the evening, and Mobley’s pointed vocal assertions were accompanied by
a dry string timbre and bitter dotted rhythms in the energised central

Christopher Purves gave us a powerfully vigorous ‘Why do the nations’, but
one that was not consistently focused, and ‘The trumpet shall sound’, when
pushed, strayed sharp – though trumpeter David Blackadder was compelling,
combining mellifluousness and rhetoric with a truly beautiful sound. But,
in Part 1, Purves’ ‘For behold, darkness shall cover the earth’ was richly
foreboding, forming a pleasing complement to the later emotive frissons of
‘Behold, I tell you a mystery’.

Soprano Mary Bevan out-sang the chaps on this occasion, though! The soprano
soloist in Messiah has to wait a long time for her first entry,
but the recitative introducing us to the shepherds abiding in the fields
was compelling and communicative. ‘Rejoice’ was relaxed and carefree,
despite the technical demands, and conjured the drama of opera. In Part 2,
‘How beautiful’ spoke of simply, unsullied joy; ‘I know that my Redeemer’
was quite introspective but also persuasively assuring. Bevan’s soprano
climbed high and sank low with ease and without disruption to timbre or
tone. This was simply wonderful singing.

The real stars of the show, however, were the AAM chorus. When there are
just seventeen singers there is nowhere to hide, but no safe haven was
needed. If the combined voices couldn’t quite summon the majesty required
in ‘Glory to God’, this was more than compensated for by their alacrity and
agility in ‘And he shall purify’, in which waves of sound swelled and
washed over us. The choral sequence at the start of Part 2 was wonderfully
dramatic. We were provided with surtitles, but these were not necessary;
soloists and chorus enunciated with clarity and bite, even when the lines
danced lightly, as in ‘His Yolk is Easy’. ‘He trusted in God ’ seemed to trip along on tiptoe.

Egarr was able to indulge his whims in the choral numbers. In the first
chorus, ‘And the Glory’, the phrases seemed occasionally foreshortened; ‘All
We Like Sheep’ was characterised by idiosyncratic dynamic contrasts, and
emphatic stress on particular words, such as ‘iniquity’. In the Hallelujah
chorus Egarr didn’t ‘milk’ the fermata before the final cadence and seemed
impatient to sweep forward with urgency. The homophonic mystery of ‘Since
by Man’ tingled the spine, especially as the contrasting fast interludes
raced ahead. The wall of resonant sound that pronounced the final ‘Amen’
belied the small forces.

Does Handel’s Messiah need to be made relevant for new,
young audiences? I have to confess that, having spent my entire adult life
endeavouring to share my artistic passions – musical, literary and visual –
with learners young and old, and stubbornly resisting and denying the
notion that art needs to be made relatable, my hackles tend
to rise in the face of such terms. But, that’s an argument for another day

This performance of Messiah was prefaced by Hannah Conway’s A Young Known Voice, a work collectively created after a series of
workshops, Messiah Who?, in which young students aged 11-15 from
various London schools had come together to explore their response to
Handel’s work and create a new composition. The result was a palimpsest of
Handel, negro spiritual, community anthem, declamatory rap and textual
soundbite: a heady, and sometimes powerful and disconcerting mix. Text was
whispered and proclaimed by the chorus, and members of the AAM chorus, and
declaimed by young soloists who took bravely and assuredly took turns to
come to the fore to make their voices heard.

There were startling juxtapositions: ‘Behold I tell you a mystery. It’s
gone viral into all lands.’ ‘Death weighs upon our shoulder/ Until nothing
is left. The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised
incorruptible.’ The unifying cry, ‘Hallelujah!’, was undercut by
expressions of alienation, ‘We do not fit in the mould. We are seen as
different. You’re not my child. Not my child.’

Conway – an experienced and undoubtedly skilful and empathetic leader of
many such projects – said that she hoped the work would make us listen to
Handel’s Messiah in a new way. Certainly, the young musicians who
participated will undoubtedly remember the night they performed in the
Barbican Hall – Mobley’s presence and performance must have been an inspiration to some of the young participants – and who knows what artistic pathways such experiences may
inspire them to follow.

One heckler, who objected to both Conway’s prefatory evangelism, as she
urged us to ‘trust the younger generation’, and to the performance of A Young Known Voice itself, was – following some ‘Out, out!’ cries
from nearby audience members – asked to leave by the Barbican Hall ushers.
On my last visit to the
Barbican Hall
, just a few days before, the audience
were dancing in the aisles; now they were being evicted from the stalls –
Merry Christmas, indeed.

Occasionally, the text cut close to the bone, reminding us of the
viciousness of rejection, estrangement and loneliness: ‘You are eight times
more likely to be strip searched if you are black’; ‘shouts of Faggot and
Queer only fed my fear.’ But, there was hope in the conclusion: ‘We are the
future/ The newer generation/ We are the inspiration/ We will lead.’ One
hopes that they are right.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Messiah

Academy of Ancient Music: Richard Egarr (director/harpsichord), Mary Bevan
(soprano), Reginald Mobley (countertenor), Thomas Hobbs (tenor),
Christopher Purves (baritone), Choir and Orchestra of AAM.

Messiah, Who? A Young Known Voice (Hannah Conway): La Retraite RC
School, St Paul’s Way Trust School, Tri-Borough Music Hub, Westminster City

Barbican Hall, London; Thursday 20th December 2017.

image_description=Messiah, Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican Hall
product_title=Messiah, Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: A Young Known Voice

Photo credit: AAM