EDITOR’S NOTE: On the 18TH and 19TH MARCH 2016, the oratorio ‘Messiah’ by the great composer George Frederic Handel was performed for the first time in its entirety within a Malaysian church setting at the Grace Convention Centre. Below is a testimony and a review from Philip Chai, an actual active participant in the event.
Many music lovers are used to seeing world class concerts in Malaysia, most notably by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and visiting soloists as well as international stars such as Michael Buble. All usually held in our own Dewan Filharmonik or other well known venues.
So it came as quite an astonishment to many concert goers who witnessed two performances of Handel’s Messiah at Grace Convention Centre, PJ on 18th and 19th March. Let me go on record right here by admitting that I was involved in this production having been called in at the last minute to augment the tenor section of the chorus when a couple had to withdraw due to illness. As a choral scholar (I sang with the London Philharmonia Chorus for several years) and choirmaster myself I have sung in and conducted numerous performances of Messiah in Singapore, London and many other places with world renowned orchestras.
However, despite my involvement I believe my views in this review to be entirely unbiased and honest as I did not know either the conductor or many of the soloists, orchestra or chorus. I assumed when I joined it was just going to be the usual local standard production, albeit well put together.
Little did I realise I was walking into a production of Messiah which I will remember as THE FINEST I have ever seen.
Handel’s Messiah is the world’s most popular oratorio and normally performed during Christmas where audiences the world over go to listen to the story of the nativity: the emphasis being on the birth of Christ. In 1997 as I alluded to earlier, I conducted the Selangor Philharmonic Choir (then as it was) in Messiah, A Christmas Cantata featuring mainly the arias and choruses from Part 1 of the work and ending with the Hallelujah Chorus. And that was how most people came to regard Handel’s Messiah.
There have also been concerts of the full work but somehow the story of Jesus and the message conveyed in Part 2 (His Passion & Resurrection) and Part 3 (His Coming Again) as intended by the composer does not appear to have had the impact as it was intended. A possible reason may be that the season of celebration and festivity does not allow for reflection and contemplation of His Passion to any great extent.
The staging of Grace Assembly’s production of Messiah, conducted by Paul M Baker at the beginning of Easter Week this year showed the ingenuity and strength of Handel’s work. Fugues and harmonies cleverly interwoven between each other and recitatives and arias written in a manner to convey the many different moods and emotions felt by Jesus during His Passion. The betrayal of mankind against Him, His forgiveness of sins, His Intercession and mankind’s Salvation serves as the base and instrument for the deliverance of the Christian message to each and every person listening to the work.
A piece of music, no matter how technically perfect it is executed is still only two dimensional and cannot be considered as complete unless it has a soul or in this case, being a spiritual work, the Holy Spirit.
Conductor Paul M Baker’s tweaking of some tempos and expressions within Messiah and his overall interpretation demonstrated not only a deep knowledge of the baroque style but also a flawless reworking of the work to focus more on Christ’s passion rather than His birth. This was brilliantly delivered by the orchestra, the soloists and the chorus and resulted in an unsurpassed and highly emotionally and spiritually charged performance which moved everyone in the audience to the core. The emotions of Jesus as He felt was captured. The shame of His betrayal was felt. And so with the other emotions.
I can only assume that Paul M Baker was guided by divine inspiration in his interpretation and execution of this, one of the world’s most famous works, because if not, I cannot understand why a conductor of his sensitivity and flair is not seen conducting in the great concert halls of the world, especially our own Dewan Filharmonik Petronas.
The Orchestra 1685 led by Ms Mayya Musaeva was truly excellent. Created specifically for these performances it comprised professional Malaysian orchestral players with an interest in baroque music and benefitted from additional tutelage from Dr Andrew Filmer, the renowned baroque specialist. Listening to them play as a single unit with as an authentic baroque sound as one can achieve on modern day instruments, one would never realise they had met for the first time only a few days before. Special mention must go to the trumpet player, Aleksandr Artamonov whose duet with the bass soloist in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” was both flawless and uplifting.
Next to the soloists. Most who came to the concerts seemed to all have their own favourites and special moments and each was exceptional in its own way. Tenor Yap Jin Hin set the pace with his beautiful “Comfort Ye” and “Every Valley” but it was “Thou Shall Break Them” that showed off his outstanding range and prowess. Well known soprano Ang Mei Foong was on top form and delivered the personal favourite of many “I know that my redeemer liveth” delicately and with exquisite refinement. As for mezzo soprano Gabrielle Maes who flew in from the USA especially to sing this role ….where did this lady learn to sing with such subtlety and emotion? There is no doubt that her “He was despised and rejected” was the most heart moving rendition of the piece I have ever witnessed and moved many in the audience to tears. Last but not least the bass soloist, the charismatic Mak Chi Hoe whose “Trumpet Shall Sound” made a lasting impression and his performance of “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” tore along at a frenzied pace with exactly the right balance between aggression and dextrous precision.
Finally The Handel Festival Singers. Again put together for these performances by the conductor and tutored by their chorus master Chi Hoe Mak. There was not one member of the audience I spoke to who failed to be completely captivated and uplifted by all the choruses. Precision, near perfect pitch and a quite unique unity of sound resulted in the hairs of many standing on end, particularly during the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” and the final “Amen”.
Adding to the experience and understanding for the audience, each musical item was previewed with the relevant biblical text (lyrics) together with the Scriptural references in both English and Chinese on video screens either side of the stage. This allowed the audience to follow the “Life of Christ in music” and added a ‘Bible Study’ dimension to an already deeply spiritual musical journey.
Seasoned and international professional and amateur musicians alike who came to see the performances left the auditorium in awe. As one commented “I had to keep pinching my arm to remind myself I was in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia and not the Barbican or Royal Albert Hall in London”. Others just left open mouthed and speechless but most restricted themselves to short responses – “Stunning!” “Unbelievable!” “How was this possible in PJ?” “Cannot la!” etc.
All round, these elements came together seamlessly under Paul Baker’s baton and resulted not only in a well-deserved standing ovation on both nights but a staging of Messiah unlikely to be surpassed in terms of professionalism and musicianship in this or perhaps any other region in the near future. Somehow, the conductor managed to open a window which allowed the musicians, soloists and the choir members to pour out their emotions which was in turned passed down to the audience.
The result was a truly memorable Messiah which had real soul. I am convinced that Messiah as performed here on 18th and 19th March must have been what Handel had intended when he wrote the work. A concert to remember for all time and a truly world class musical AND spiritual experience.
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Note: All pictures contributed by the production team of Grace Convention Center’s Handel’s ‘Messiah’.