Almost exactly a year ago, Bom Jesus Basilica Old Goa (where the relics of St. Francis Xavier are enshrined) 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.
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.
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 is 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.
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).
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’.
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. Several of Indian musicians featured are of Goan origin, illustrating my viewpoint 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.
Also, although we have now a significant groundswell of enthusiasm for amateur choral singing in Goa, the music literacy to sustain the ability to take on large works is just as important. 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 here rests on this.