Dublin Messiah

Kevin Mallon

Aradia Ensemble conductor Kevin Mallon

The second annual Dublin Messiah presented by Aradia Ensemble was not sold out.  I wish I could comfort Aradia conductor & Artistic Director Kevin Mallon, considering that the competition — Toronto Symphony who are 90 years old, and Tafelmusik more than 30 years old–seem to draw more people.  They have had a bit of a head start.  Even so Glenn Gould studio was quite full even if not 100% sold-out: and it certainly deserved to be, based on what I heard tonight.

I feel much clearer about this than I did last year when I first heard Aradia & Mallon undertake this score, which aims to emulate the Messiah in its earliest incarnation, as opposed to the ones usually encountered (as there are many options and possibilities), whether in the choices of text & instrumentation, or in the simple (if somewhat ironical) insistence that we remain seated for the Hallelujah Chorus.

And while we’re talking about that famous number, I think I get it now.  I’ve been listening to the piece all my life, and sang the tenor part in my choir as we performed it a few times.  There used to be an expectation that everyone will sing it loudly and enthusiastically from beginning to end: which not only makes no sense, but come to think of it, begins to be offensive if those words are to have any meaning.  A “Hallelujah” that is brayed or shouted protesteth too much, and therefore becomes a kind of perjury.  The historically informed performances I’ve encountered have problematized so many of the old assumptions that I find myself now wondering.

And of course, while “Hallelujah” is a kind of celebration, it makes no sense that it should begin with the volume control turned to 10 out of 10.  I’d previously encountered a few examples of performances that start more modestly, building over the course of the number.  Mallon and Aradia exemplify such a fascinating choice, bringing great intensity to the beginning of the work, even if they sing the opening phrases more quietly than usual.

That pattern could be writ large through the evening.  The text made sense to me as never before, not just because it was easy to hear, but more importantly, because the shape of phrases was based on the clear enunciation of the words:

  • When Virginia Hatfield sang “I know that my Redeemer liveth” she did not emphasize any syllable in the phrase.  The mistake some make is to make “know” a bit louder than the rest of the phrase.  But if you know that your redeemer liveth, the emphasis paradoxically makes you sound like a liar.  If you really know it, you would say it as casually as if you are telling me the time, affirming something central to your being, and not exhorting me and assuming that i am an atheist in need of conversion. Hatfield, perhaps with Mallon’s help, gets it, and won me over because she sounds so convinced herself.
  • When the chorus sang “Worthy Is the Lamb”, or come to think of it, any other phrase, they could have been talking rather than singing difficult music.  Every phrase was shaped like a sentence, as clear and as lucid as Handel could wish.
Virginia Hatfield

Soprano Virginia Hatfield

There’s a lot more to historically informed performance than merely playing quickly on the old instruments.

I think after reading Mallon’s answers to the questions posed in a recent interview, I understand his interpretations in an entirely different way.  While it’s a truism that music based on a text requires a clear understanding of that text, one rarely finds such integrity when the texts in question are religious.  Mallon gets his chorus & soloists beyond mere enunciation and musicianship.

I was especially curious to hear “He was despised”, considering Mallon’s comments in the interview.  (see the second question three concerning Mallon’s favourite number).  When someone has told you their favourite number, you listen more closely.  And we should not be surprised that this was perhaps the highlight of the evening, as sung by counter-tenor Scott Belluz.  The number contains two wildly divergent and contrasting sections.  It begins with a slow and pathetic complaint, interrupted by portrayal of torture in the middle section, Mallon driving this section more than I’ve ever heard.

Indeed, each of the soloists had their opportunity to not only shine, but to carry the work on their back.  Hatfield was radiant in the nativity section, and again at the opening of Part III.  Joseph Schnurr was gripping through the torments of Section II when the tenor is like a narrator.  Belluz sang his numbers with great clarity and exceptional decorations in his da capo verses, always seeming to be the calm at the eye of the storm.  And Giles Tompkins used his warm rich tone to great effect, lending authority whenever he stepped forward.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Messiah with such strength in the soloists.

Mallon made the Messiah come to life for me, vivid as a reading of Biblical texts through a series of virtuoso vocal performances.  This man is always having fun up there, leading a very relaxed group of artists who played without fear but never without conviction & passion.  Every now and then Mallon threw us a curve, right up to the final page of the score, when he gave us a drum solo at the very close of the Amen: a brilliant, stagey touch.

One of these days Aradia & Mallon will offer a CD version of the Dublin Messiah, hopefully with the same soloists we heard tonight.  But in the meantime, these performances are precious and rare, in a city over-flowing with Messiahs. 

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