Splendid Orpheus Choir and NZSO shine along with Madeleine Pierard in Trans-Tasman Messiah

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington conducted by Stephen Mould

Handel: Messiah

Soloists: Madeleine Pierard – soprano, Jacqueline Dark – mezzo-soprano, Paul McMahon – tenor, James Clayton – bass

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 13 December 2014

Handel’s Messiah remains a work of perennial popularity, be it in great cities of the Old World, or in tiny provincial settlements clinging to specks of land in far flung southern oceans. Whether presented by massed singers and a huge orchestra or a small parish choir with traditional harmonium, its magic never fails to evoke wonder and worship. There must be very few works which can claim such status across all sectors of the public – from the regular cognoscenti of classical concert goers to the family from the local gospel hall making their sole visit each year to a concert hall. Saturday’s performance saw an NZSO ensemble of 37 players plus harpsichord and chamber organ, in tandem with 150 voices from the Orpheus Choir, four soloists with extensive experience in professional operatic roles and oratorio, and conductor Stephen Mould from a predominantly opera background.

As always, the NZSO provided an impeccable contribution of total technical skill and musicianship with never a hint of laissez faire from musicians who must have played this work umpteen times. Rather, they responded to Handel’s mastery and magic with the freshness of discovering Messiah for the first time. The choristers too threw themselves into the performance with a fire that suggested they’d been waiting all year for this opportunity. Considerable demands were made on their technique through the tempi imposed by Mould in many of the highly elaborate fugal numbers, but the choir was quite undaunted. Soprano and bass lines managed to survive, in fact the sopranos sparkled, but the middle voices were less comfortable. However accurate their high speed runs, they could not be cleanly discerned at such speeds, and were therefore denied their rightful place in the wonderful complexity and richness of Handel’s contrapuntal textures. It was an approach to Baroque interpretation that had me sympathizing with a fellow listener who remarked that “the conductor must have an early train to catch”. Handel had gone to the trouble of selecting every single one of those notes in the amazing florid lines of his fugues, and such quick tempi seemed to cloud his intentions. All power to the choristers that they stepped up to the plate with such determination and aplomb. The tempi of the grand chorale-style sections was, by contrast, almost always stately and dignified, and Mould’s shaping of dynamics enhanced every number in the work, so I was left wondering how that same sympathy and sureness of touch had deserted him in the fugues..

The soloists were all Australian bar New Zealand soprano Madeleine Pierard, who proved to be the standout performer of the four.  (Though James Clayton now lives in Wellington. Ed.), With effortless grace and consummate technical command she traversed the whole gamut of soprano numbers: her great artistry in ‘He shall feed His flock’ left her duo partner mezzo Jacqueline Dark somewhat in the shadows – a position she occupied throughout the evening as her voice simply did not have the power needed to project the mid-range in the Michael Fowler Centre. By contrast Pierard’s incisive technique made mincemeat of numbers like ‘Rejoice greatly’, where she was in full coloratura flight that was frankly riveting, even while the Mould’s challenging tempo was imposing undue haste upon Handel’s music.

Tenor Paul McMahon sometimes had problems with projection too, but his numbers were always competent if in places lacking sufficient energy. Bass James Clayton, however, had the commanding stature, presence and voice to excite considerable attention in his more dramatic arias, particularly in the fury of those like ‘Why do the nations?’ But all up I was left wondering why New Zealand conductors and singers were, yet again, passed over by NZSO management in favour of those from offshore. There is an abundance of New Zealand talent which could have done, in some instances, a better job. The Australians may be able to best us consistently on the cricket pitch, but that is no reason to behave as though they do on the concert stage. I thought we were supposed to have grown out of the cultural cringe, but it seems not yet. New Zealand audiences deserve better, but it appears one must still live in hope………

On that cultural note, I could not help reflecting on how extraordinarily fortunate we may be tucked away on these tiny islands falling off the bottom of the planet but our musical heritage is incredibly rich and varied. Not only is there the great Judeo-Christian tradition which has given birth to innumerable musical treasures like Messiah, but from the mid C20th century we have been discovering our own unique musical voices, be they Maori or pakeha. These in turn reflect the character of our land, where none lives far from the sea, the mountains, the lakes, or the grinding tectonic plates – so totally different from those other European and Levantine origins. Here we can enjoy it all, and the enthusiasm and appreciation of Saturday’s full turn-out demonstrated that we relish the opportunity to do so. In spite of some interpretive qualms, this Messiah was a splendid ending to the NZSO’s concert year.


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