Great art has the ability to express the voice of a whole culture, not just in what is fashionable, but also in what is significant to it, including the very soul of a people. What greater art to Christians then than in Handel’s ‘Messiah’, a masterwork covering the whole life of Christ in music.
Just last week, the oratorio (a musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists, usually written to be performed in concert halls and often treating sacred subjects) by the great composer, George Frederic Handel, was performed for the first time in its entire length at the Grace Convention Center on the 18th and 19th of March 2016.
This was the first time the oratorio was performed in a Malaysian church and it was received with rousing reception.
A few days before the performance, the production’s conductor, British composer and conductor Paul M Baker, had expressed to The Star the reasons behind this rare occasion.
The catch line for the production, “The Life of Christ in Music” was purposefully chosen to express the true significance of the work. “Performing Messiah as an Easter production gives us the opportunity to examine the work through a different angle, which is from a much more emotional and spiritual perspective,” Paul Baker had explained.
Alongside Johann Sebastian Bach, Handel was at the forefront of the Baroque era, one of the main epochs of Western music, and thus, one of Western Music’s most important figures. Mozart reputedly paid homage to him by declaring “”Handel understands affect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt.”
Beethoven said of Handel, “he was the master of us all… the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb”. He had also said that the Baroque composer had the remarkable ability to achieve much great effect through simple means.
The musicologist Michael Kennedy wrote; “Superb as are Handel’s instrumental compositions such as the concerti grossi, sonatas and suites, it is in the operas and oratorios that the nobility, expressiveness, invention, and captivation of his art are found at their highest degree of development”.
The “Messiah’ covers the whole scope of the Christ Story and a wide range of Scriptures that surround it. Performed in the English language, and divided into 3 parts, the first part is composed of five scenes about the “Prophecy and Promise of the Redeeming Messiah”.
Here, the subject is of Isaiah’s prophecy of salvation, the coming judgement, the prophecy of Christ’s birth, the annunciation to the Shepherds, and the healing and redemption that will come from Christ.
Part 2 of the oratorio is composed of seven scenes covering the aspect of “The Suffering Lamb Who Redeems” (Christ’s Passion, Christ’s Death and Resurrection, Christ’s Ascension, Christ’s Reception in Heaven, The Beginnings of Gospel Preaching, The World’s Rejection of Christ, God’s Ultimate Victory).
The centerpiece of the work, this section of the oratorio ends with the iconic Hallelujah Chorus. Legend has it that the King of England in Handel’s day, George II, was so moved by the chorus that he stood out of respect for the Lord of Lords, the only authority above his own, and when the king stood up, everybody stood up. This tradition was kept in Grace Convention Center’s production.
A masterpiece of equilibrium and range both in emotion and construct, Handel worked extensively on the composition. “At each and every performance, Handel continued to add, subtract and edit his own work according to the number, range and individual strengths of the musicians he was working with,” conductor Paul Baker had said.
Each soloist is vital to the composition, all are featured on equal levels, and each part of the assemblage (orchestra, soloist, chorus) is fundamental to the whole.
The soprano soloist would represent the joyous, faithful and loving God, the alto/mezzo-soprano would represent the suffering Christ, the tenor would represent the prophetic and all-seeing God, and the bass would represent the angry and jealous God. In between, the chorus would play an important role in expanding the motif or as a response to the soloists.
The oratorio end on a third part with the “Thanksgiving for the Defeat of Death” (The Promise of Eternal Life, The Day of Judgement, The Final Conquest of Sin, and The Acclamation of the Messiah which brought together the chorus and the whole orchestra in a rousing musical declaration that was on almost equal levels with the Hallelujah Chorus).
The production at the Grace Convention Center brought together four of the region’s top soloists accompanied by the 38-piece Orchestra 1685 and the 40-member Handel Festival Singers.
Conductor Paul M Baker has founded music academies in Malaysia, worked with artists such as Zainal Abidin and Sheila Majid, as well as performed with the Malaysian National Symphony Orchestra and directed many orchestral, chamber, choral and musical theatre productions.
Baker is also the composer of many Christmas carols, hymns, chamber works, and incidental music for plays etc as well as the award winning musical The Rising Son.
The Chorus Master and Bass Soloist, Chi Hoe Mak, is considered today as one of the most promising musicians in Malaysia as featured by Top10 Malaysia in their 2014 editorial and is a recipient of the 2015 Kakiseni BOH Cameronian Arts Award. He completed post-graduate and professional studies from Birmingham Conservatoire in the UK with multiple Distinctions.
Soprano Soloist Ang Mei Foong was the first prize winner of the NTNU Vocal Concerto Competition of 2002, the 2nd prize winner of the Taiwan Rotary Club Artists’ Awards of 2002, the 8th prize winner, as well as “the young talented singer” award winner of the “Mondial Chinese Vocalists Concours 2003”. Recently she was awarded the “Silver Medal Winner Award-Outstanding Achievement” in the Global Music Award, October 2014.
Alto Soloist Gabrielle Maes is an actress and writer who has been nominated numerous times for Best Actor awards in Montreal. She was also the winner of a Best Actor Award in the 2011 Boh Cameronian Arts Awards Malaysia, a past winner of Canadian Broadway Idol, a finalist in Broadway Idol, USA and was nominated for Most Inspirational Person at the Mont Kiara International School, Malaysia.
Yap Jin Hin, tenor soloist holds a Doctor of Musical Arts from Lousiana State University and was a protégé of the noted American tenor, Robert Grayson. He has appeared in leading roles with a number of well-known opera companies in the US, including the Nevada Opera, Opera Louisiane, Acadiana Symphony, and Opera in the Ozarks. His wide range of repertoire include performances in The Barber of Seville(Rossini), The Magic Flute(Mozart), La Boheme (Puccini), La Traviata(Verdi), Romeo et Juliet(Gounod), and The Rape of Lucretia(Britten).
A veteran of two young artist programs (Chicago Opera Theater; Des Moines Metro Opera), Yap has been a Regional Finalist in the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and was a recipient of the prestigious Paul Groves Scholarship and the Frances Greer Award. He is currently the Head of the Music Department at the University of Malaya.
All involved in the production performed to resounding success and an encore of the Hallelujah Chorus closed the final night of the production.
|Share The Good News|
NOTE: All photos kindly contributed by The Grace Convention Center, Malaysia. Some of the information within this article was obtained through a report written by Yeoh Beng Hai for The Star (published on the 17th of March 2016).