Vancouver Symphony Orchestra Sings in Praise of Handel and the Messiah


As you may have noticed, I have absent for a while. It’s time I came back – what with it being a new year and all. My first entry is not something that I though I would have had the opportunity but I guess knowing people helps. So here goes:

Although I am more of a punk and folk music fan, I do have my parents to thank for exposing me to the symphony and classical music in my youth. Perhaps this is why I chose to attend the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s performance of “The Messiah” just before Christmas. As a choir boy I remember singing what is perhaps the most famous vocal refrain in all of classical music “Hallelujah” countless. In spite of all this background, I had never seen an oratorio performed live (which is what The Messiah) is classified as.

An Oratorio is defined as a large musical composition for orchestra, choir and soloists. Where Oratorio differs from opera however is that the latter is defined as musical theatre (it has defined roles and a plotline) whereas the former is strictly a concert piece. Opera also deals predominantly with mythology, history and romance and deception; oratorio covers sacred texts and is more often than not performed in churches and concert halls (in the case of the VSO’s performance it was perfectly placed at the Orpheum theatre).

There was one other interesting fact about this night. Here I was, a 25-year old theatre student/journalist/critic reviewing my first ever classical concert. Upon my arrival I noticed the name of the soprano soloist. The name might be unknown to most by I recognized it instantly as not only was she a year above me at Oak Bay High School in Victoria, but we have also performed on the same stage countless time whether during musicals or a multitude of choir performances. So, congratulations are in order to old schoolmate Rachell Fenlon for not only pursuing her dreams and succeeding (she recently obtained her masters degree) but for also giving a great performance that night of December 14th.

Now to the actual show. It struck me that this was a very heterogeneous audience: mainly old, white (95% anyway) people in suits and evening gowns, though it was nice to see my parents bring their kids just as mine was did. That is not to take away from the volume of talent that was present on the stage, but every genre and style has its crowd, and this was one I was probably unlikely to encounter again – say at a Kate Nash concert at the Owl.

While at times I found the show slow and stiff, – it is an exercise in patience – I was in awe of how adept the musicians and singers were in navigating the complex chords and notes held for thirty-two, forty-eight and sixty-four beats. I also admired the professionalism, structure and formality of it all – such as having the conductor and the four soloists come on stage separately from the rest of the performers, bowing and the conductor greeting the concertmaster (as is common practice).

At times in my past reviews, I have ranted about the unprofessionalism of young audiences (see my Lights review for more). The great thing about an auditorium filled with baby boomers was their conduct. Right on cue, the entire theatre of 3400 stood for Hallelujah – a tradition which dates back to earliest performances in London in the 1700s where the King allegedly stood moments before Hallelujah started – they definitely knew their classical music history. As someone who was a relative newbie in the symphony concert world, it was a nice change of pace filled with immense talent, professionalism and pleasant harmonizing. Bravo! Brava! Glory in Excelsis Deo.

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