Messiah from Kapiti Chamber Choir

Messiah by Handel. Conducted by Guy Jansen with Kapiti Chamber Choir, members of the former Bel Canto and friends, and an orchestra  

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Sunday 29 November 2009  

It looked as if this would be the first year, in living memory, that none of our choirs had scheduled a Messiah, when news came of a performance by the Kapiti Chamber Choir, one of Peter Godfrey’s former choirs. Conducted by Guy Jansen, it was likely to be as fine a performance as any we have heard, and so it has transpired.

There were two performances: the first on Sunday 22 November at Paraparaumu and the second in Wellington on the 29th. Today, it is more common to use rather smaller choral forces than a few decades ago when huge Victorian choirs were favoured. The performances in Handel’s time didn’t exceed 40 or so. On Sunday there were 40 singers.

The result was one of the most splendid performances I’ve heard.

Part of the secret was the addition of members of the former Bel Canto choir and friends: that was an ensemble of mainly professional solo voices, founded by Jansen in 1987 and disbanded in 1998 after he left to teach at the University of Queensland (what a shame no New Zealand university grabbed him).

They added to the strength and spirit of the entire ensemble, sharpening attack, dramatizing dynamics and expression, and generating an exciting, vivid sound; the distinct choral groups allowed the music to be passed from one to another in an electrifying, dramatic way; and each group took certain choruses on its own. With Jansen’s inspiring leadership, they produced sounds ranging from magical calm to awful fury. I used to feel at times that Bel Canto’s drawback lay in the strength and individuality of many of the voices, not properly merged in a uniform sound. It was not evident here.

All the solo roles were taken by eight Bel Canto (and friends) singers, almost all in fine voice; they happen to be still among Wellington’s best singers.

One of the things he drew attention to in his pre-concert talk, was the belief that success lay in rooting the singing in the meaning of the words, their sounds and rhythms. And that became very clear in the performance; it lent every number, every line, its particular character; clarity of diction too benefitted from this attention. It struck me first during the chorus’s singing of ‘Every Valley’. Care with sense and dynamics, word colours, rhythms and ornaments were all gained from the attention paid to this aspect.  

Particularly striking were sopranos Janey MacKenzie (‘How beautiful are the feet’: ethereal high notes) and Barbara Graham whose bracket was confined to those following the Pastoral symphony ending emotionally in quite operatic character in ‘Rejoice greatly’.

However, I dare not make distinctions between the others, basses Roger Wilson (fearsome in ‘Thus saith the Lord’ and clarion high notes in ‘The trumpet shall sound’) and Rodney Macann (who joined Alison Hodge in ‘But who may abide…’, alternating benevolence and wrath, and his own ‘Why do the nations’, all outrage); and tenors Ed Hintz (pure high notes in the opening ‘Comfort Ye’) and John Beaglehole who sang ‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart’ with real anguish. Soprano Lesley Graham sang two major arias in Part 3, ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ and ‘If God be for us’; the two altos: Alison Hodge’s ardent ‘O thou that tellest’ was embellished with a fine violin obbligato, while Denise Wilson shared ‘He shall feed his flock’ capably with Janey MacKenzie.

The small orchestra played like professionals; strings were polished, confident and energetic, oboes lovely, trumpets commanding; and Jonathan Berkahn’s contribution to continuo was often marked, and though I was not aware at the time because his name was not in the programme, it was Douglas Mews who opened up the main organ to add to the excitement of the final numbers, creating an ecstasy of religious triumphalism.  There was a standing ovation.

(An expansion of the review in The Dominion Post)  




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