Celebrating their 100th consecutive Messiah since 1918, Auckland Choral and director Uwe Grodd delivered a rewarding Christmas parcel last night at the Auckland Town Hall. Since the end of the the First World War and the flu epidemic that swept the world causing 9,000 deaths in New Zealand and closing down all public gatherings, Auckland Choral have been performing Handel’s Messiah every Christmas. So there was an expectation of something special. Reinforcements were brought in for choir and orchestra and a line-up of hugely renowned soloists were engaged for the occasion. Not one seat was spare in the audience and not one more chorister could fit on the stage... the Town Hall was literally packed to the rafters.
So, was it a special package? Indeed the wall of choral faces greeting the audience was spectacular. Auckland Choral was joined by alumni and singers from City Choir Dunedin, University of Auckland Chamber Choir and as far as Australia with the Brisbane Chorale (why not ask more Auckland based choirs?). The vast choral force were charged with memorising three choruses in the evening. This made the choir more responsive and engaged and would have given the singers a new challenge… after all, some choristers had performed the Messiah as many as 75 times. The most famous of all choruses, the Hallelujah chorus was one of those memorised and in time-honoured tradition, the audience jumped to their feet and some joined in the singing. It was indeed especially joyous and true to its title.
Before that precocious child of the family however was the first stunning aria of the evening. Tenor Simon O’Neill claimed the stage with assurance and sparkle of a singer in his prime. Comfort Ye and Every Valley proved that O’Neill transitions from delivering Wagner to Handel with striking aplomb. He truly owned this aria, admittedly delivering quite a Verdian, operatic tone but for my money this lifts an oratorio to a dramatic art form which is far more convincing than staid ‘concert’ style. His later delivery of Thou Shalt Break Them was a little less secure but it is an exacting piece, indeed “The Messiah” vocal solos are exceptionally demanding.
Comfort Ye set the tone for the evening which was enriched with bass Martin Snell’s Thus Saith the Lord, shaking us to attention with cracking runs and commanding tone. We had fine delivery from mezzo soprano Deborah Humble in the slower sections of Who May Abide but I felt there was a slightly solid tempo and delivery in the “refiner’s fire” section. Then again from bass Snell, demonstrating a wonderful range from top notes to glorious low tones in The People That Walked In Darkness. Finally in Part One soprano Marlena Devoe got her chance to step in to sing a lovely tone in Rejoice Greatly.
The elegance and story-telling was lightly and deftly directed under Uwe Grodd’s baton. Assembled was a larger than usual band including two harpsichords, chamber organ, the impressive town hall pipe organ and even harp, which I’d never seen before in a Messiah and wonder why it was included? There was some warm string playing and exceptional cello continuo from James Bush. Brilliantly spotlit appearances for Huw Dann and Norman Macfarlane both on trumpet in the chorus Glory To God In The Highest was a nice theatrical touch. However, at the end of Part One, I felt Grodd missed a trick by setting too quick a pace for He Shall Feed His Flock. Soprano Devoe and mezzo soprano Humble maybe didn’t have the space to deliver the wondrous compassion potential in that section.
Part Two brought us aria He Was Despised sung with great dramatic flare by mezzo soprano Humble who made much of the “shame and spitting”. This led us into the stand-out chorus for me of the evening, Surely He Has Bourne Our Griefs which unified the choir with great depth of sorrow and commitment. Also included in this programme was the rare bass aria Thou Art Gone Up with declamatory-style octave leaps before another unusual inclusion, the duet O Death, Where Is Thy Sting.
A highlight of Part Two was The Trumpet Shall Sound, a duet for trumpet and bass. Huw Dann on trumpet delivered liquid gold tone parlaying with the rich warmth of bass Martin Snell and Snell’s unfolding of phrase after phrase of lengthy legato. It was a wonderful pairing and Grodd matched a beautiful unity between orchestra and soloists. We had another opportunity to hear Devoe’s piercingly beautiful tone particularly in her aria If God Be For Us for which she had shaped quite an operatic style final cadenza.
But the evening should really belong to Auckland Choral and the fine choruses that are the heart of The Messiah. The final chorus Worthy Is The Lamb was memorised by some choir members and was a grand and satisfying Amen for the evening, sending us home from a huge evening with an appetite surely large enough for Christmas pudding.
Radio 13 thanks and credits Joanne Bremner for all the images featured in this article.