Handel’s Messiah — review

By John McEwen

Volunteer Hall, Duns, Sunday 8 February 2015

IMG_3387aWonderful! Handel’s Messiah in Duns on Sunday evening was a complete success, and a joy. Musically superb, this performance of the well-known oratorio was given with such generosity and gusto by professionals and amateurs alike — that the piece (written in 1742) might have been brand-new. The depth of wonder and gratitude that it conveys seemed real, believed-in, and relevant. The chorus, made up of singers from the district (two-thirds of whom had never sung Messiah before, some of whom had never heard of it), was simply brilliant.

The occasion was organised by A Heart for Duns to mark the 120th anniversary of the opening of the Volunteer Hall. In February 1895 the opening ceremony was followed by a performance of Messiah with soloists from Edinburgh and a local chorus. That was later pronounced the finest musical entertainment ever performed in Duns; A Heart for Duns sensibly decided to keep to a winning format.

One hundred singers signed up and rehearsed throughout Saturday and Sunday with the soloists and professional musicians, led by Greg Batsleer, chorus director of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The soloists are all students at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire and the 20 members of the orchestra play regularly with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and other professional Scottish orchestras. Greg Batsleer, a charismatic and fantastically energetic conductor, provided rigorous and profoundly enjoyed training over the two days. Inspired by his passion for the music and technical expertise, and by his sheer star quality, the chorus responded with a stern willingness to learn and an eager determination to do its best. As the audience settled down, the 100 black-clad local heroes looked ready to be exhilarated and to exhilarate.

And they delivered. Messiah is unusual among Handel’s oratorios for the prominence of the chorus; in other works, the soloists dominate and the chorus only provides occasional short choruses but in Messiah the soloists give more of the narrative while the chorus supplies most of the emotional impact, the rapture, the joy — and the message. This distinct role was evident from the chorus’s first contribution to the proceedings: after the restrained, even slightly sad overture, the tenor sang (like all the soloists, brilliantly) — “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted” — and the audience knew it was in for a treat. But then, this great and glorious noise! “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” sang the chorus and the musicality and accuracy and drama and passion on display were all mightily impressive, and moving. Bravo!

Messiah is supposed to have been written by Handel in a three-week, white-hot, frenzy of spiritually-driven creativity — “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself,” he is reported to have said after writing the “Hallelujah” chorus, and while that might be apocryphal, the music is surely untinged by doubt. To match his devotion is a considerable challenge for a secular age but one that was roundly met by these singers. “For unto us a child shall be born … and His name shall be called Wonderful”: it certainly sounded like they meant it. This was a chorus which did, at any rate, believe in joy, and conveyed that belief with all its heart.

The orchestra meanwhile appeared flawless, graceful, exquisitely delicate at some moments, rumbustious at others and marshalled with magnificent attention to detail and texture by Mr Batsleer. The late-arriving, joy-proclaiming trumpets were a particular delight.

This was an entirely happy collaboration and one which A Heart for Duns would do well to think of somehow reprising. Greg Batsleer appeared keen to return and had no complaints about the surroundings, acoustically or otherwise. At the age of 120, however, the Volunteer Hall does seem a little tired, but when the money that A Heart for Duns so cleverly earned from the People’s Millions is spent on such crucial improvements as a lighting rig and black-out curtains, a notable upgrade can be anticipated.

Messiah, though, could hardly have been better. The audience rose to its feet as one to applaud. Heartfelt congratulations were offered to all involved. This felt special, real, transcendent; exhilaration was general. “WOW!” posted a chorus member, “I loved every minute and just wish I could do it all over again”. Such enthusiasm shone through wonderfully: this was a night to remember for the audience too. A triumph.

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