Almost exactly a year ago, Bom Jesus Basilica played host to a marvellous Lenten concert of sacred choral music by the famed Jesus College choir from Cambridge, England. News of the success of that concert and of the wonderful acoustic in the Basilica encouraged another choral ensemble from England to perform here, on 25 March 2014.

The South West Festival chorus (SWFC) were joined in an equal partnership by the musicians of the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) to present to the Goan audience, possibly for the first time ever, a near-complete performance (a few arias were docked from Parts II and III) of Handel’s masterpiece, his sacred oratorio Messiah, arguably one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in western music.

The Messiah is a British staple, particularly at Christmas and Eastertide, and I have lost count of the number of performances I must have been to in my England years. So hearing it on home soil felt like welcoming an old friend here for the first time, with hopefully many more in the future.

Handel wrote Messiah in 1741, incredibly within 24 days, to a scriptural text by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, and from the version from the Psalms included in the Book of Common Prayer. In contrast to most of his other oratorios, in Messiah the singers do not assume dramatic roles, and there is no single dominant narrative voice. The three-part structure of the oratorio resembles that of Handel’s three-act operas, and Jennens further subdivides the “parts” into “scenes.” Handel used a technique called ‘text painting’, where musical lines mimic the lines of the text. It tells the majestic yet intensely human story of Jesus Christ that continues to entrance audiences and performers from all works of life.

Much has been written about the ‘authenticity’ of performances of period compositions, the Messiah being a good case in point. Sir Colin Davis summed it up well when he said “What matters is: Does the music speak to us now?” The Messiah performance we heard in Old Goa not only spoke, but stirred the blood as well.

The opening Sinfonia, in the style of a French ouverture, served as a curtain-raiser to the oratorio and amply displayed the full-toned maturity of the string ensemble of the SOI.

The four soloists (Angela Brun soprano; Marie Elliott mezzo-soprano; Edmund Hastings tenor; Jan Capinski bass) also sang with the chorus, and one has to commend all of them for moving back and forth efficiently and unobtrusively so the performance could proceed smoothly.

It is difficult to select for particular mention specific segments of the performance. In Sir Colin Davis’ words, Handel was a wizard with melodies and each aria is not only beautifully crafted, with thought given to the text, but eminently hummable, and they vie for your attention in your mind as you leave the concert.

My favourite choral excerpt from Messiah has been ‘For unto us a child is born’ ever since the 1980s, when a British exchange medical student left her music cassette collection behind for me after she left Goa. How appropriate that I should be introduced to this during my OBGYN stint as a student! And it has played in my head for many a delivery thereafter! It bubbles over with the unrestrained joy that accompanies any birth, let alone a Divine one.  

It is devilishly difficult to sing, and sing well, but the SWFC did it with practised trademark British equanimity.

The other choral numbers that stood out for me were ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’ and ‘And with his stripes we are healed.’ ‘Surely’ brilliantly conveys the horror of the murder of Jesus; when the choir sings “He was bruised for our iniquities”, this last word is dramatically almost spat out in a descending dotted figure, musical ‘underlining’ at its very best.

The fugal element and even the actual notes themselves of ‘And with his stripes’ almost certainly inspired the Kyrie of Mozart’s Requiem. Mozart gave us a richer counterpoint, but the DNA is still Handel’s. Handel offers us marvellous counterpoint several times as well, notably in ‘Let us break their bonds asunder’. SWFC rose to the occasion, barring occasional lapses in attack and precision in some entries.

All four soloists have impressive biographies, and we heard this in their performance. Brun’s ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ and ‘How beautiful are the feet’ eloquently conveyed the unshakeable faith and conviction of the Biblical text. Brun specialises in coloratura repertoire, and ‘Rejoice greatly’ was the perfect platform for this.

Elliott’s rich velvety voice sparkled in her arias (‘But who may abide the day of his coming?’ and ‘O thou that tallest good tidings to Zion’ come to mind).

Eight arias were given to the tenor, the highest among the soloists; Hastings’ clear bright unforced tenor tone rang through in all of them, with particular reference to ‘Comfort ye my people’, ‘every valley shall be exalted’ and ‘Thou shalt break them.’

In terms of audience reaction, the bass Jan Capinski made quite the impression, with spontaneous applause elicited after the sheer energy of his virtuosic ‘Why do the nations’. ‘Behold, I tell you a mystery’ and ‘The Trumpet shall sound’ also stood out.

Nick Walkley’s clear ringing trumpet tone added heroism and fanfare to ‘The Trumpet shall Sound’, and beautifully highlighted the much-loved Hallelujah chorus as well. ‘The Trumpet’ had shades of the pomp and circumstance of Handel’s other gem, Music for the Royal Fireworks.

Gavin Carr’s conducting reflected his own other background as a singer, and he balanced the orchestral and choral forces with sensitivity and grace.

The musicians of the SOI played their hearts out right through, and amateur string players like me ate our hearts out at the verve and nobility of their playing. Five out of the nine Indian musicians featured were of Goan origin, illustrating my oft-repeated argument in favour of an outreach music education programme of the SOI in Goa, where it is most likely to yield fruit in terms of future recruits to their own orchestra.

Another pertinent observation after this concert is this: although we have now a significant groundswell of enthusiasm for amateur choral singing here, the music literacy to sustain the ability to take on large works is just as important. In England it is not uncommon to encounter Bank Holiday choral workshops attracting singers of all abilities, at the end of which large choral works are performed. But being able to read music is a given. We have to throw away the crutch of MIDI files and video recordings to learn our lines. It is not that difficult to learn to read music. The future of the choral effort (among many other things) rests on this.

Child’s Play (India) Foundation is grateful for the thoughtfulness and generosity of the chorus and musicians in thinking of having a collection in our benefit during the concert.

(An edited version of this article was published in the Navhind Times Goa India on 30 March 2014)