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A Week Before Christmas: Singing with Spirit

Handel’s Messiah with Academy of Ancient Music (20th December 2017), Strauss and Mahler (17t December 2017) and Bernstein’s ‘Wonderful Town’ (21th December 2017) with Simon Rattle and LSO

20th December 2017. Handel’s Messiah by Academy of Ancient Music

Although pre-Christmas weeks are usually jokingly associated with shopping and crowds on Oxford street, the actual place where our souls are before and on this day is obviously a musical hall or a cathedral where human voices unite in singing. Many a listener in the Barbican was joining silently in the vocal feasts that took place in the Barbican during the week leading to Christmas. And the first one, if one builds up chronology according to the existence of musical works on the scale of history, was the evening when Handel’s Messiah was performed by Academy of Ancient Music (20th December 2017) with Richard Egarr conducting (while also playing a harpsichord). Indeed, quite an unexpected Christmas treat on this occasion, but was indeed something to look forward to, considering AAM’s vast experience of choral recording with famous boys’ choirs from Oxford and Cambridge. This time Barbican’s podium saw the AAA’s own choir of about 16 people, who revealed impeccable unity of expression and top-notch delivery of Messiah’s sounds.

Interestingly, the evening was preceded by a work ‘A Young Known Voice’ inspired by Messiah which was commissioned by AAM from the composer Hannah Conway. She worked with a group of teenagers aged 11-15 with the youngsters writing their responses to Handel’s music while also expressing some of their most poignant reflections all leaning towards being rejected by the society and the need to find their place in the world. The resulting work had direct musical quotations from Messiah, and sounded like a happening or an musical installation, with children regularly stepping forward and approaching the mike, as though briefly soloing in their verbal statements. In my view, it sounded too much as a message delivered with the diversification agenda in mind and I doubt that the kids would have said and sung those lines without being prompted by adults, but it was indeed inspiring to see so many different young faces saying and singing very brave words about being rejected on the grounds of their colour or sexuality.

The following Messiah benefited from such an opening piece, as indeed one began to think about how Handel’s work sounded and was perceived in his time, and whether the words of Messiah could also be taken as a powerful message not only because of their music, but because of the general thrust of the work, too. Thus, the listeners no longer thought of the evening as time of beautiful music, but it began to be reaching their deeper spiritual recesses, as they were more attuned to the words complemented by well-known music which is magisterial in scope. Richard Egarr was doing a fine job which involved a lot of movements up from his harpsichord and back again, and needed several tunings in between some pieces for his musicians who were playing the instruments of the era to tune in together again. The situation was not helped by a lot of coughs which filled these pauses, as audiences were coming in from one of the darkest days of the year. But the level of mastery of Messiah by the whole ensemble overpowered these minor hiccups of the general flow of the evening. Christopher Purves, who is to perform his own program consisting of Handel’s work at the Barbican in January, stood out by the depth and richness of his voice never faltering in long passages and keeping up with the rhythm proposed by the conductor. The countetenor Reginald Mobley introduced a special, almost irreal beauty into the evening with his voice, while Mary Bevan and Thomas Hobbs also comlemented the quartet of soloists perfectly. The man with an American accent sitting next me commented that it was the best Messiah he had heard in his life, and joining in massive applause of the audience, I agreed we listened to a wonderful rendering of the piece on that night.

17th December 2017

While the Messiah was a more expected treat for the festive season, the most unusual and heart-rendering of all three evenings was the concert of London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle which had the music of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Both works are very philosophical and have contemplative poetical works as their sources. For Strauss it was Goethe (although the poetry served here as an inspiraton rathen the foundation for music) and for Mahler it was a collection of poems by Hans Bethge colled The Chinese Flute which is based on translation of Chinese texts. Simon Rattle and LSO musicians unweaved ‘Metamorposen’ (1945) through bringing us into a land of constant change and making as experience a vertigo similar to what a reader of Ovid’s works would feel if the poem was condensed into a 30-minute piece. This work makes us thing of the recovery of the earth from the greatest calamity of the 20th century and of possibilites of natural cycles of life unfolding after this stress. May be the ingrained fear of human life possibly ending soon makes the life’s cycle in Strauss’s work progress more rapidly than it would in a symphonic work written in other circumstances.

After having attuned us to this exploration of hidden alterations in nature and the world around us, Rattle and LSO plunged us into the most wonderful treat of soul-searching – Mahler’s piece for an orchestra and two male voices ‘Das Lied von der Erde’. This piece is indeed what may be Christmas is about – the exploration of lands usually hidden by our constant state of being in a hurry. This piece is a like a musical haiku (albeit set on Chinese poetry, but having the same imagery and serenity), a tableau for contemplation, a work when time stops and allows us to flow inside the lakes of our subconscious worlds in the pauses between elements of beautiful singing and Mahler’s orchestration. The singers alternated: the tenor Simon O’Neill singing pieces based on poems associated with the state of drunkenness and youth, which in Mahler gives you a sense of general metaphysical dizziness and openness to the world. But it were pieces sung by wonderfully tender German baritone Christian Gerhaher that brought the audiences into the state of silent ecstasy which could be compared to floating on a lotus leaf in twilight. Mahler gave Gerhaher and Rattle the grounds to achieve an ephemeral and serene beauty through music, and Rattle was always gently leading his orchestra through these inherently silent grounds – an oxymoron when one things of music which tries to express human emotions through sound. So it is through pauses, through longevity of musical phrases, through tenderness and exquisite subtlety of singing that Gerhaher and Rattle waved their way through pieces called ‘The Lonely One in Autumn’, ‘Beauty’ and the final ‘The Farewell’ (ending with the German word ‘ewig’ standing for ‘forever’ or ‘eternal’) which brought the evening to the heights of the sublime.

21st December 2017

Simon Rattle knows that contrasts is what audiences need, and the new type of a concert called ‘Half Six Fix’ featuring the concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s musical ‘A Wonderful Town’ (1953) served as brilliant and sparkling finale of the festive week leading to Christmas. Digital programme provided by EnCue app was supposed to lead us through the evening, giving information on the musical and on each of its numbers, but, though using it myself, I haven’t noticed anyone in the audience do it, and here I think one must take into account the average age composition of the public. With the day of total immersion into Bernstein’s work scheduled on January 27th, Simon Rattle is beginning to celebrate the composer’s centenary with us before Christmas. Simon Rattle presented the musical to the audiences, bringing some funny jokes in and setting the general mood of friendliness and cheerfulness which was to reign over that evening. Rattle also continued to look over his shoulder as if to see how his singers (who were performing on the semi-circle line before the orchestra) are doing, and sometimes glanced at the audiences with a conspiratorial smile.

The musical is a celebration of life of the ‘Big Apple’ with its thousands possible paths for each newcomer trying their luck in the big city. It is never too sociological or too deep and always presents the funny and tender side of its two heroines’ stories. The LSO chorus and orchestra, as well as the soloists were perfect in delivering the mood of Bernstein’s piece, sometimes including even the musicians into their dances on stage and along the rows in the Barbican. The lighting engineers obliged, as well, and made the hall look green when ‘My Darlin’ Eileen’ was sung and changing into other colors of the spectrum during other numbers from the musical. Alysha Umphress was a star of the evening, in my view, with her enormous vocal range, her charisma and her ability to progress through changes of rhythm quickly and with a flare. Danielle de Niese as Eilleen partnered her with grace, and Nathan Gunn as Bob Baker, dressed in a dark-blue suit, looked and sounded like a Hollywood star with a deep and convincing vocal range and presence. This wonderful evening enriched us with vibes of happiness which come from those beautiful saxophone sounds in delivery of Bernstein’s melodies combining the range of music styles of the 1950s. Wishing Merry Christmas to Barbican and to its audiences!

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