Guest post by Karine Hetherington

In early December, the beginning of the Christmas season, I attended a unique performance of Handel’s Messiah in the newly-refurbished Pillar Hall, Olympia. The modest red-brick building of Italianate design hugs the vast exhibition halls of Olympia. With a 250 seating capacity, it is an ideal venue for what was to be an intimate rendering of Handel’s masterpiece.

Pillar_Hall_Olympia_1

Ten professional singers step out onto a small raised platform: three basses, two tenors, two altos and three sopranos. They are framed by two marble pillars with the chamber musical ensemble in front, composed mostly of strings, a trumpet and harpsichord player. All the artists look a picture in evening attire.

Down the road, at the Albert Hall, the same work is being performed with full choir, solo artists, conductor and full orchestra. Sheer numbers are of course de rigueur in large concert venues such as the Albert Hall. How else can you vocally fill a vast auditorium of amphitheatre- type proportions?

Back in Olympia meanwhile, the harpsichord player, the heartbeat of the music ensemble, strikes up. The distinct baroque sound transports us back to the 13th April 1742, date when Handel’s Messiah was first performed in the New Music Hall, Dublin. It was an extraordinary night. Dublin ladies had been told to arrive without hoops for their dresses and gentlemen without swords, to create more room. One hundred extra Dubliners were squeezed in to witness Handel’s magnificent Messiah. The small orchestra was borrowed from Dublin castle and a handful of singers plucked from the city’s theatres and cathedrals.

47161060_1893708670722933_3159876614410469376_nMiles Lallemant, harpsichord player and musical director of the Kensington and Olympia Festival of Music and the Arts, summed up this particular production at the Pillar Hall during my interview with him pre-performance: “This musical and singing ensemble would have been this size in Handel’s day, which makes our performance of the Messiah all the more authentic and exciting to play”.

Tenor Robin Bailey steps forward proudly and intones a robust ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people’, the opening solo. Canadian baritone, Andrew Mahon, follows shortly with his rich and smooth interpretation of ‘Thus saith the Lord’. He mounts and descends the lower registers effortlessly. His blond neighbour, James Geidt, sporting a full Victorian beard has a wonderful bass too but the style is different, his voice is all about vigour.  The three sopranos are sweetness incarnate. In such a music space, each soloist comes into sharp relief, their outward appearance, their personality and of course their voice, with its unique timbre and inflexion.

When alto soloist, Laura Lamph comes to sing ‘He was despised,’ her mournful voice reminds us of a young Kathleen Ferrier. Each poignant word is a soft dagger to the heart.

This is where an intimate space really works. A powerful and moving libretto such as this needs to be heard, especially as it is sung in English. A large choir, no matter how professional, cannot deliver that so easily in an echoing auditorium or in a cathedral, where music and words so often disappear up into lofty vaults and crannies.

And so is it a case of less is more in the music world? Not always. Music originated in churches. Not all churches have good acoustics. London, indeed the UK, has a wealth of musical venues to choose from, but the concert each time can only be as good as its artists.

The Amen in Handel’s Messiah ends in a gradual swelling wave of divine loveliness. All ten soloists unite to create a sound of extraordinary beauty and power.

If you close your eyes you can imagine a choir three times the size.


Karine Hetherington is a teacher and writer of novels, who also blogs on art and music. Her two published novels, The Poet and the Hypotenuse, and Fort Girard, are set in France in the 1930s and 1940s. Karine promotes singers and musicians performing in the fast-growing Kensington and Olympia Music and Arts Festival. She is also an arts reviewer for ArtMuseLondon.com. When she is not writing about music, she likes to sing in her local choir or tackle piano sonatas, some of which are far too difficult for her.

Xerxes (Alice Coote) sings to his beloved plane tree

In the opening scene of Handel’s Xerxes (or Serses) we witness the King of Persia (Xerxes) singing a love song to a plane tree (“Ombra Mai Fu”). As the narrative of this opera unfolds – a tale of love triangles, frustrated desire, disguise and general chicanery – we begin to wonder whether Xerxes should have stuck with loving the tree, rather than anyone else, for trees tend to be rather simpler to deal with.

In fact, the plot of Xerxes is fairly straightforward, and in Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed production, first seen in 1985 and now in its sixth revival, it becomes incidental to the charming setting, and witty and delightful progression of the narrative. An entertaining cast of characters inhabit a setting which recalls Vauxhall Pleasure Garden and Versailles (complete with modern-day red cordons), with a nod to Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode in the costumes of the servants/chorus and a glimpse of ancient Persia in the form of a giant statue of a winged lion (which one might view in the British Museum) and the tiny ancient city at the rear of the set.

Xerxes (Alice Coote), Romilda (Sarah Tynan) and Arsamenes (Andrew Watts). Picture credit Mike Hoban

The all-British cast gel brilliantly, all winks and nods and cheeky asides, and Xerxes, sung by Alice Coote (making her role debut) is thigh-slappingly wonderful, at once swaggering principal boy and deluded, love-lorn King, the full weight of emotion given rein in her rich enunciation of words like “Desire”. Romilda, beautifully sung by Sarah Tynan, is coquettish and proud, while Atalanta (Rhian Lois) is downright louche, particularly in Act 1. There are also some delightful comic cameos from Arsamenes (sung by counter-tenor Andrew Watts) and his servant Elivro, whose disguise as a “mockney” flower seller (complete with floral frock) gets all the laughs in Act 2.

The production combines a cool rococo elegance with wit and genuine humour (the welcoming home of the old soldiers from battle, taking tea en plein air, and the hedge-trimming), while the music is energetically directed by Michael Hofstetter and crisply articulated by the orchestra. All in all, this was a rollicking evening, delightfully piquant, charming and above all entertaining. It’s a long night (three acts in three-and-a-half hours) but with the quality and pleasure of this production and the commitment and obvious enjoyment of the cast the narrative moves on apace. Highly recommended.

Xerxes continues at ENO, London Coliseum until 3 October

During the opening measures of the famous chorus, members of the audience glanced around anxiously, checking to see who would be first to rise to their feet. Then someone in the balcony stood, and someone else, and suddenly the whole of the Cadogan Hall audience rose to its feet, as is traditional for the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus.

The reasons for this tradition are somewhat apocryphal: one version is that at the first London performance in 1743, the audience “together with the King”, were so moved by the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus that they spontaneously rose to their feet. An alternative explanation is that King George II was so tone-deaf that he thought the performance had finished, and the orchestra was playing the National Anthem: once the King stood, everyone present was obliged to stand too. Whatever the reason, there is something really special about standing for such an uplifting and triumphant piece of music.

For me the ‘Messiah’ will forever be associated with the beginning of the Christmas season. When I was at school, it formed an integral part of the concert which ended the Autumn term, along with the service of nine lessons and carols at the church next to the school. I must have sung the ‘Messiah’ at least 10 times, for the tradition of performing it at Christmas continued when I joined the university choir.

It’s four years since I last heard the Messiah, also at Cadogan Hall, a lovely venue close to London’s Sloane Square, which boasts a spacious crush bar where one can get a decent-sized glass of Prosecco. The audience is different to the Wigmore, being largely fully awake, alive and lively. People-watching is fun beforehand and I spotted a couple of “slebs” in the noisy bar as I waited for my friend to return from the cloakroom. The other benefit of Cadogan Hall is its generous, comfortable seats, and the gently raked auditorium which affords a good view wherever you sit. The hall itself is a converted Christian Science church, completed in 1907, though the interior suggests a more 18th century heritage. Much of the original interior has been retained including a fine wooden screen and balcony at the rear of the stage. Last night, a tall Christmas tree sparkled from the balcony.

The English Chamber Orchestra with the Rodolfus Choir and four soloists was under the baton of eminent and now very elderly conductor Raymond Leppard. I remember seeing him conduct when I was a child, and it was lovely to see he is still going strong, if a little more portly than I remember, and somewhat unsteady on his feet. Under his direction, orchestra and choir were impeccable: perfect timing, perfect cadences, perfect intonation. The soloists, two of whom I have seen before in the same roles, were very fine, offering just the right balance of acting and emotion, while also “telling the story” of the music very clearly. From row D, the closest I have sat to the stage at a concert for some time, we were afforded a wonderful view of the orchestra, soloists and choir. I loved the way the continuo player switched from harpsichord to chamber organ and back again, as the score required.

The Rodolfus Choir is made up of singers aged 16 to 25 and their youthful voices suited the music perfectly. The clarity and purity of their delivery was matched by the orchestra with an elegant symmetry.

I suppose the best thing about the Messiah is all the memorable ‘tunes’ – from ‘Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted’ to ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’, ‘I Know My Redeemer Liveth’ to the charming duet between tenor and alto ‘O Death Where is Thy Sting’. Then there are the choruses: ‘And the Glory of the Lord’, ‘All We Like Sheep’, ‘For Unto Us a Child is Born, ‘Hallelujah’, and the wonderful, life-affirming fugue of the final chorus. In between all this are some beautiful solos, and orchestral interludes. Handel brings the text, drawn from the King James Bible, to life with light and shade, storms and sunshine, fugue and counterpoint, and a huge variety of textures and “word painting”, the technique of having the melody mimic the literal meaning of the libretto.

It was a wonderful evening and a lovely start to the festive season. I felt very Christmassy as I left the hall with my friend, and we drove around Sloane Square, which was beautifully decorated, with great bunches of fairy lights in the trees, and a shimmering curtain of lights all down the main frontage of Peter Jones.

Cadogan Hall