Showing posts with label Messiah. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Messiah. Show all posts

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Choir’s best-ever ‘Messiah’ a treat

Messiah, 25 November 2023. Photo: Ian Thomson
Handel’s Messiah 
City Choir Dunedin, Dunedin Town Hall 
Saturday, November 25 

Those who said, ‘‘I’ve heard it before’’ and stayed away missed a musical treat when, in a triumphant return, Handel’s Messiah was presented in the Dunedin Town Hall on Saturday evening. 

It was a night to savour. 

With accompaniment by the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, Dunedin City Choir excelled in its best-ever performance of the work. Conducted by choir director David Burchell, who also played the harpsichord, there was no sign that he — like many choir members — had just recovered from Covid. 

Originally performed in the lead-up to Easter, Messiah is now a pre-Christmas fixture on musical calendars. Charles Jennens’ English libretto made accessible the story of Christ’s birth, crucifixion and resurrection, especially given the clear diction of all four soloists. Elizabeth Mandeno (soprano), Maaike Christie-Beekman (alto), Lachlan Craig (tenor) and Wade Kernot (bass) delighted the audience. 

Craig’s confident opening recitative set the scene, then — supported by the 70-strong choir — the story continued with Christie-Beekman’s strong depiction of the prophecy of the virgin birth and Kernot’s beautifully conveyed emotion in the Isaiah passage (‘‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light’’). 

The soprano introduced the New Testament with the angels appearing to the shepherds and Mandeno’s clear rendition was a pleasure to hear. 

The duets between alto and tenor, and alto and soprano were well done, although at times the voices were a little overwhelmed by the DSO. 

Effectively a trumpet/bass duet, The Trumpet Shall Sound was truly impressive, Kernot’s superb breath control matched by that of trumpeter Ralph Miller. 

Messiah demands a lot of a choir. Dunedin City Choir impressed throughout but was at its very best in We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray and the final chorus, Worthy is the Lamb. The choir’s discipline and the seamless transitions between chorus and soloists were a tribute to the many hours of rehearsal under Burchell’s direction, recognised by the well-deserved standing ovation given at Messiah’s conclusion.

Saturday’s Messiah was the perfect lead-in to Advent. 

Review by Gillian Vine, The Star 30 November 2023

Monday, November 27, 2023

A rite that endures for good reason

Photo: Ian Thomson 25 November 2023

Messiah, City Choir Dunedin and Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, Dunedin TownHall, Saturday, November 25, 2023. 

The Southland Times review of the premier of the entire Messiah by the Invercargill Philharmonic Society in 1878 noted the "indefatigable" conductor (Hautrie West) and that the "ordeal" of the rehearsals had met a "very successful performance", before an enthusiastic but sparse audience. 

Then as now, the effort required to bring such a vast and long work to fruition still requires its leader to be indefatigable, the choir to be committed to many rehearsals, and the instrumentalists to be ever present. City Choir Dunedin, Dunedin Symphony Orchestra and soloists Elizabeth Mandeno (soprano), Maaike Christie-Beekman (mezzo-soprano), Lachlan Craig (tenor) and Wade Kernot (bass) under David Burchell produced a highly successful performance. 

The less than capacity audience included those who knew to stand up for, and sing along to the Hallelujah Chorus. It also included those new to this rite who grew fidgety over the work’s duration. They rewarded the performers with a prolonged standing ovation. 

As in 1878 the Messiah presents its soloists with something of a rite of passage. The demands of the work are heavy. If the voice is not sufficiently agile or powerful the result can be turgid; every repetition requires renewal; performance stamina should endure long intervals of inactivity. Each had their highlights — Mandeno’s clarity in There Were Shepherds and Rejoice Greatly, Beekman’s dramatic portrayal of He was Despised and Rejected, Craig’s pleading in Behold and See if There be Any Sorrow and Kernot’s triumphant The Trumpet Shall Sound. Each is also culpable of being tongue-tied in the more convoluted melodic lines. The choir’s devotion to task overcame similar shortfalls, but shone in those choruses sung from memory.

Handel’s stalwart Messiah is a rite that endures via its devotees’ devotions.

Review by Marian Poole, Otago Daily Times 27 November 2023.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Stellar soloists make beloved classic sing

Messiah 2021. Photo by Ian Thomson.

Handel's Messiah

Tuesday 7 December 2021, Dunedin Town Hall

City Choir Dunedin, four fine soloists and Dunedin Symphony Orchestra turned in stellar performances at the choir's two-yearly presentation of Handel's Messiah on Tuesday evening.

Review by Gillian Vine, The Star, 9 December 2021.

Messiah: Soloists cap splendid showing

Messiah 2021. Photo by Ian Thomson.

Handel's Messiah

Tuesday 7 December 2021, Dunedin Town Hall

Handel could never have imagined Messiah, his oratorio written in 1741, would live on through generations, becoming such a popular work throughout the world, especially on the Christian calendar, where it is customary to perform it before Christmas. 

City Choir Dunedin, accompanied by Dunedin Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Burchell , delivered this massive dramatic musical work to a very appreciative audience on Tuesday evening in the Dunedin Town Hall. 

The soloists were Lois Johnston (soprano), Claire Barton (alto), Oliver Sewell (tenor), and Paul Whelan (bass). 

I have attended and reviewed many performances of Messiah and along with others to whom I spoke, felt this performance was one of the best. Maybe after a lean year for live musical events it was the exhilaration of just being in the town hall as the drama and passion of text unfolded. But the musicians were definitely all in top form, and Sewell’s opening Comfort Ye and aria certainly set a very high benchmark for others to follow, as glorious tenor timbre and robust cadential ornamentation filled the auditorium. 

The choir of 90 were in great form, with full marks for strength, blend and top soprano intonation. A highlight was the ardour and detail accorded the big chorus numbers, such as And the Glory, Lift Up Your Head, and of course the famous Hallelujah with its soaring triumphant climaxes. Burchell drew excellent dynamic contrast for sections of Since by Man Came Death

The baroque orchestra responded to paces set, fusing tight string blends with stylistic embellishment and exciting crescendi. Trumpet highlights were strong and true. 

Soloists advanced the plot with precision and sincerity. Whelan’s big resonating bass achieved clarity of text, especially in The Trumpet Shall Sound with an impressive decorated final cadence. Barton filled He Was Despised with appropriate sentiment, and Johnston (who at 24 hours’ notice replaced an indisposed soprano) was never tentative, although I felt she was a little lightweight, but her famous aria I Know That My Redeemer Liveth was superb. 

The final Amens were followed by long applause and standing ovation. A magnificent performance.

Review by Elizabeth Bouman, Otago Daily Times, 9 December 2021

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Inspired and uplifting performance

Handel's Messiah
Tuesday 10 December 2019, Dunedin Town Hall

Handel's evergreen oratorio Messiah was given an inspired and uplifting performance in Dunedin Town Hall on Tuesday by City Choir Dunedin, four guest soloists, and the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra -- all under David Burchell's unerring baton.

This work, composed in 1741, comprises a mammoth meditation on the Christian message, with dramatic interludes. Its many contrasts of texture, dynamics and scoring demand great sensitivity and flexibility from all those on stage, but smooth follow-throughs -- obviously resulting from much careful rehearsal -- always ensured a real sense of continuity and held the large audience's attention.

Soloists Rebecca Ryan (soprano), Tessa Romano (alto), Andrew Grenon (tenor) and Joel Amosa (bass) all gave sterling performances in their different ways, though Romano's dulcet tones often failed to carry in the large hall.

Especially impressive were Grenon's expressive ornaments in 'Comfort ye', Ryan's bright delivery of 'Rejoice greatly', and Amosa's stentorian 'The trumpet shall sound' coupled with Ralph Miller's silvery trumpet obbligato.

But it was the choir's part in this great work that brought it most to life for the audience -- they even burst into applause after the 'Hallelujah' chorus! If aggressiveness was needed (in 'He trusted in God'), the choir gave it; if florid counterpoint (in 'His yoke was easy' -- ironically, one of the hardest choruses to sing) was called for, they produced it. Best of all were three choruses sung from memory -- 'Glory to God', 'Lift up your heads' and 'Since by man came death'.

The Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, led by Miranda Adams, added greatly to the performance's strength and seamlessness, with Burchell's well-chosen tempos for the set-pieces always firmly established.

And the continuo group -- cellist David Murray and organist Johnny Mottershead, with Burchell on harpsichord -- were always at the ready for the recitatives.

Not just a pre-Christmas treat, then, but a true treasure!

Reviewed by Donald Cullington, The Star, 12 December 2019.

Pre-Christmas tradition at town hall - hallelujah!

Handel's Messiah
Tuesday 10 December 2019, Dunedin Town Hall

On Tuesday evening, the Dunedin Town Hall resounded with music of one of the best-known oratorios. Messiah by George Frederik Handel.

In recent years Messiah has become a two-yearly Dunedin pre-Christmas event, performed by the Dunedin City Choir and the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra.

The three-hour performance seems to have retained its popularity -- this year's good-sized supporting audience reacted with standing ovation, prolonged applause and "Bravos".

David Burchell conducted from the harpsichord, producing a brilliant overall performance. The choir of 120 achieved excellent standards in their big choruses, two of which ('Lift up your heads' and 'Since by man came death') were memorised, and exceptional balance and beauty of tone were achieved in 'And with his stripes we are healed'.

The tenors excelled in some of their scalic runs, and soprano top register notes were strong and true.

Following the overture, tenor Andrew Grenon opened Part One, achieving relaxed but strong and convincing recitativo with fluency in 'Comfort ye'.

Soprano soloist Rebecca Ryan generated a big, beautiful sound and delivered with melismatic precision and stunning ornamentation. A highlight was her 'I know that my redeemer liveth'. 

Tessa Romano was considerably "under-weight" in her alto solos despite fine melodic decoration and clarity of text.

However, a strong, authoritative style came from bass Joel Amosa, with well-paced scalic shaping and embellishments, not always easy for a bass voice, and I'm sure he wished Handel had not chosen a high E to climax 'The trumpet shall sound'.

The orchestra (led by Miranda Adams) was impressive, especially with string co-ordination of Baroque embellishments, and two trumpet players gilded everything superbly.

I followed the music on my well-worn 19th century family score, alongside a senior singing pupil who was enthralled by her first Messiah experience.

Review by Elizabeth Bouman, Otago Daily Times 12 December 2019.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Vibrant, dedicated and enthusiastic musical triumph

Standing ovation for Messiah 2017. Photo credit Ian Thomson
Handel's Messiah
Tuesday 12 December 2017
Dunedin Town Hall

Although originally written as pre-Easter music, it has become traditional for the approach of Christmas to be heralded worldwide by performances of Handel’s majestic oratorio Messiah, writes Elizabeth Bouman. City Choir Dunedin, Dunedin Symphony Orchestra and their guest soloists with musical direction from David Burchell, thrilled last evening with a full performance of the English-language Baroque oratorio which was first performed in Dublin in 1742 and has now become one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.

Dunedin’s performance last evening was a triumph, vibrant and well-paced, full of enthusiasm and dedication to delivering text and score.

The choir’s big choruses, (some performed without reading the score) such as Glory to God in the Highest, And the Glory and, of course, the Hallelujah achieved excellent balance of harmony and articulation, and the dynamic contrast in Since by Man Came Death was outstanding.

Madeleine Pierard (currently home from London) filled the hall with soprano strength and confidence for all her solo work.

Mezzo-soprano Claire Barton (Dunedin) possesses strong alto timbre, and her performance of He Was Despised, interpreted with passion and solemnity, was superb.

Tenor Ian Tetley (UK) achieved smooth almost counter-tenor-like tone in his upper register at times, especially in Comfort Ye, and his neat ornamentation also impressed.

Bass Jared Holt (Wellington) has a deep rich vibrato and like many with his voice type, had difficulty in clarity of definition in many of the melismatic passages Handel wrote for this part.

The orchestra showed precision and good articulation throughout, responding to Burchell’s command from his seat at the harpsichord.

It really was a magnificent occasion, rewarded by a very well-deserved standing ovation.

Review by Elizabeth Bouman, ODT 13 December 2017

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Moving rendition of Handel masterpiece

Handel's Messiah

8 December 2015
Dunedin Town Hall

A sizeable audience at the Dunedin Town Hall attended the 2015 City Choir Dunedin performance of Handel's beloved Messiah, directed by David Burchell and accompanied by the Southern Sinfonia.

The work began gracefully in its overture, followed by the lilting "Comfort Ye" sung by tenor David Hamilton. The ensuing opening choruses were sung with bravado and confidence, although occasionally stuttering in rhythmic precision.

The subsequent arias, bold and evocative by bass Martin Snell, declamatory and impassioned by mezzo Wendy Dawn Thompson, heralded the incarnation texts admirably. Brooding majesty was conveyed in Snell's rendition of "For Behold", while the chorus "For Unto Us", sung thereafter, exhibited choral electricity and fervour. Soprano Emma Fraser's introduction to this performance brimmed with radiancy, preparing the audience for the denouement to an engaging Part One.

Part Two, focusing on Christ's self-examination, persecution and exaltation, began in restrained and sobering fashion; the mezzo aria "He Was Despised", while emotive, could have been sung with more powerful delivery.

The ensuing choruses, in particular "All We Like Sheep", were performed with panache, and with a particularly crisp sense of articulation noticeable in the soprano line.

The subsequent tenor solos, parted by the invigorating "He Trusted in God", were moments of real magnificence. Thereafter, the transformation from crucifixion to resurrection, conveyed by Emma Fraser, heralded bright and well-structured singing of the "Ascensiontide" and "Pentecost" choruses. Following Hamilton's ire-laden dashing of the potter's vessel, the famous "Hallelujah" evoked the fulfillment of God's triumph in its text.

Part Three began with Fraser's ornate, occasionally insecure, singing of "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth". The following "Since By Man Came Death" successfully rendered the great contrasts within its text, while Snell's telling of the great mystery and sounding of the trumpets supplied thoroughly invigorating drama.

The closing choruses of Messiah were performed with steady pomp, building in regal intensity, and concluding with a bright and resolute "Amen". Crisply accompanied by the Southern Sinfonia, Burchell's direction of the performance fashioned an emotive, elegant and well-crafted concert.

Reviewed for the Otago Daily Times by George Chittenden, 10 December 2015.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Choir and orchestra impressive

Tuesday evening's performance in the Dunedin Town Hall of Handel's Messiah was one of the best I have heard in Dunedin.

City Choir Dunedin with its recent 150th anniversary events and Southern Sinfonia's trip to Japan has seen both these groups step up to impressive new levels in performance.

Musical Director David Burchell conducted an unabridged version from the harpsichord, and the standing ovation and long applause from a large audience confirm my sentiment.

Sinfonia's strings maintained a particularly united tone throughout - tight and free from "loose ends", and trumpet solos were excellent.

Clarity and pulse were seldom compromised and the orchestral "solo" Pastoral Symphony was a beautifully articulated cantabile highlight. Good dynamics and choral blend in Glory to God in the Highest and a brilliant delivery of And with His Stripes we are Healed were choral highlights.

Soloists on this occasion were Lois Johnston, whose pure-toned quality soprano range excelled throughout, with artistic florid embellishment and melismatic passages, several at virtuosic tempi.

Alto Amanda Cole has fine tone and projection in the upper register, which added lustre to decorated cadence points, but there was a lack of strength in the lower voice where many of the solo lines sat, and despite her passion and sincerity the sound failed to dominate, becoming lost in the string blend.

Tenor David Hamilton delivered his text with rapport and strength - such a convincing soloist with mellifluous tone. His commanding narrative in Comfort Ye set a standard for all that followed.

The bass soloist was Jonathan Lemalu, whose voice I find is changing from the youthful clear-toned bass which many locals watched develop. The unique wonderful richness in the timbre remains as does his professional delivery and countenance, but at times heavy vibrato muddies intonation definition in the lower scalic passages.

A triumphant performance overall to herald the festive season.

Review by Elizabeth Bouman for the Otago Daily Times, 12 December 2013.

Feedback received from the audience

From Melissa:
Was so Absolutely Fantastic!! Loved the Choir and the Musicians were Brilliant. Wonderful production.

From Catherine:
I think this was the best performance you've done - congratulations to everyone involved!

From Rosalind:
A sparkling performance from start to finish! The tone clear and bright throughout, beautifully light and dancing in the fast numbers (All We Like Sheep, His Yoke is Easy, He Shall Purify etc) a full-bodied and thrilling sound in the big choruses but never ponderous or heavy. My niece who had just arrived from UK where she has heard many Messiah performances pronounced it "Storming!"

From Jane:
As you may know, I was ushering last night, not singing. I thought I would pass on to you a comment I overheard as patrons were leaving. One old gentleman (probably around 80) said: "It's the best Messiah I've heard for years!" Judging by his age and the fact that I've seen him at many many classical music concerts over the years, I believe it to have been a heartfelt comment.

From Anne:
Friends thought it was the best performance they had heard. And I really liked this from another friend of mine: “One of the best parts of that Messiah last night was the altos! You all were so smooth and strong.”

From Marguerite:
I was walking down Moray Place after the concert and I met two women whom I didn't know from Adam who said, "What a wonderful performance, it was great"!

From Judy:
The Messiah was the best performance I've ever heard from the choir. It was their combined total enthusiasm.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Handel’s Messiah and the Dunedin Choral Society 1863 - 2013

Dunedin Choral Society, 27 November 1956, after a performance of Handel’s Messiah.
Of all the works in the repertoire of the Dunedin Choral Society (presently performing as ‘City Choir Dunedin’), Messiah has central place. Although few of the performances have been entirely complete, 118 concerts have been devoted solely to its presentation, and numerous excerpts have been included in other programmes. Elijah and Creation, the two next most frequently performed works, have had only 25 and 20 performances respectively. The same pre-eminence is seen in the repertoire of almost every choral society in the English-speaking world with roots in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.

Messiah is Handel’s only New Testament oratorio. Its structural symmetry around the three central choruses ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’, ‘And with his stripes’ and ‘All we like sheep’ – as well as its original purpose as a replacement for opera while the theatres were closed – places it firmly in the context of Lent for religious as well as practical purposes. However, the unequal division of the three parts and the narrative form which distinguishes the first part from the more abstract second and third parts, perhaps explains the shift of association of the work to Christmas. Because of its subject matter Messiah has been perceived, since soon after its composition, as peculiarly suited to performance for charitable fund-raising, while from a choral perspective its perfect balance of chorus and solo work adds to its popularity. Probably no other work in any genre has excited such passions in so many people over its correct interpretation and performance.

Well before the middle of the nineteenth century the belief that oratorio required large choral forces had become universally entrenched. The performance of Messiah at the Handel Commemoration Festival in Westminster Abbey in 1784 had involved over 500 performers, but nineteenth-century performances at the Crystal Palace topped 1000 – a very far cry from Handel’s own small opera chorus of 12. The sheer unwieldiness of these forces, allied with a predominance of amateur performers and an over-weighting of reverence for the text of Messiah in particular, combined to slow tempos to a point where a complete performance would have taken something like five hours. Since this was plainly impractical large cuts were essential and by the time the Dunedin Philharmonic Society gave its first performance in 1863 the accepted ‘complete’ Messiah consisted of the first half more or less as written, cuts to the rest of the second part, and the third part either severely truncated or omitted entirely.

Cuts were formalised as early as 1789 in the arrangement made by Mozart at the behest of Baron von Swieten. Mozart redistributed, cut and rewrote solos, altered the harmony, and replaced the harmonic background provided by the continuo with a full range of wind and brass (including a piccolo in the ‘Pastoral Symphony’). Later editors made further rearrangements of it, and Mozart’s version was universally adopted not least because it provided a better – and more imposing – balance for a large choir in the absence of the 24 oboes of the 1784 Handel Festival. As a result, the Dunedin Choral Society’s performances of Messiah bore only superficial resemblance to Handel’s original conception, for a full two-thirds of the Society’s existence.

The first three Dunedin performances of Messiah, given by the Philharmonic Society in 1863, 1864 and 1866, were small-scale in all respects. The first was little more than excerpts – not all presented in Handel’s intended order – performed by a choir of between 52 and 80 (depending on source) ‘… ranged in a semicircle at the back of the platform, and formed a very striking coup d’oeil on entering the room’. The performance was accompanied by a ‘powerful double manual harmonium’, the instrumentalists of the first few rehearsals having apparently either dwindled or proved incompetent. The reviews made overtly generous allowances for the newness of the Society, but the Daily Telegraph noted ‘that we are hardly of the opinion that the execution of the various items of the programme was much improved by the too noisily energetic use of [Mr Flood’s] baton, which frequently disturbed their effect very provokingly.’ By the following Christmas the chorus had settled at about 45, and the Society had progressed to presenting the ‘whole’ (meaning ‘customary version’) of the oratorio, accompanied by a piano with a violin ‘to lead the trebles.’ The third performance was given on Good Friday 1866 with the assistance of the professional singer Julia Mumford and accompanied by a piano and a harmonium, thus returning it (temporarily) to Handel’s own Lenten context.

The Dunedin Choral Society (1871-88) gave 12 performances of Messiah at irregular intervals. The first of these, on 28 December 1871, provides a clear illustration of the changes in Dunedin’s musical life in the intervening five years; the Choral Society could field its own band, ‘though wanting several instruments,’ and even the amateur soloists were identified by name. Unfortunately the priorities of the performing members were not all that they might be, and although the performance was advertised as a late 8:30 pm start, and was further delayed by 10 minutes, only 54 of the expected 100 members turned up, having been delayed, the Otago Daily Times supposed, by the interprovincial cricket match. No such difficulties attended the performance two years later; it was a Vice-Regal performance, and Miss Fannie Carandini and Henry Gordon of the visiting Carandini Company were engaged as soloists. Both audience and stage were packed, the choir having been opened to all comers regardless of ability – even so, the band was easily the weakest part.

The band in these first performances probably included whatever instruments were available (a thoroughly eighteenth-century attitude) rather than any rigid adherence to Handel’s oboes, bassoons and strings. After an interval of four years, reformation of the Society and concentrated attention to the orchestra, now a separate organisation entitled the Dunedin Orchestral Association, the two 1877 performances were advertised as using Mozart’s accompaniments – largely by adding a harmonium on this occasion – establishing a practice which persisted almost unbroken until 1961. These performances included the first Dunedin presentation of ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’, made possible by the presence of R.W. Kohler, trumpeter with the visiting US Minstrels. Having broken the ice, the aria was included the following year at the Society’s performance at the New Knox Church, but it was somewhat marred by the unfortunate amateur obbligato player, whose trumpet was ‘nearly half a tone sharp throughout,’ and it was not performed again in Dunedin until the performance at the Exhibition in 1889. The use of Knox Church as a performing venue solved a number of practical problems but revealed difficulties over the behaviour of a public audience in a church, with ‘boisterous expressions of applause’ and the use of opera glasses to quiz both performers and audience causing particular offence.

From 1879 Part III of Messiah was discarded entirely, and in the performances conducted by Benno Scherek (1880-4), the first two parts were cut still further – in 1880 they were reduced from 44 items to a mere 31 – which still took two hours in performance. Scherek had formed a new band within the Choral Society, but reinforcement by both harmonium and piano was essential, and the overture and the Pastoral Symphony were omitted, though they were reinstated in subsequent performances once the band had improved. Under Arthur Barth’s conductorship in 1885 items from the third part were reinstated, and the performance took some three hours – it was reported as a mark of the improved quality of performance that no one left before the end.

Augmenting both choir and orchestra for Messiah was now accepted practice as, while a choir of ‘only’ 60 was regarded as advantageous for the clarity of the fugal movements, only a greater mass of voices could convey the majesty and grandeur of choruses such as the ‘Hallelujah’. The desirability of an annual Christmas performance of the work was also accepted, and where the Choral Society’s calendar did not include it, large excerpts were increasingly performed by church choirs, tacked on to services, with organ or piano accompaniment. With the abandonment of the Choral Society in 1888, the gap was filled in 1889 by a performance at the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition (with a choir of 450). The Dunedin Musical Association (successor to the Choral Society) was responsible for the 1890 performance, but as it had collapsed by the next Christmas, the large-scale performances of the next few years were supplied by ad hoc groups of about 100 – consisting largely of the same people – mostly for charitable purposes.

Although the 1897-14 incarnation of the Dunedin Choral Society began with the advantage of a standing army of Messiah singers, it did not produce its own performance until 1898, at which point the performing membership stood at 362. Because Messiah generally attracted a large audience it was now removed from the subscription and given as a public concert, with a view to generating extra income for the Society. Costs had risen, and although the 1889 Exhibition had lifted performance standards it had had the unfortunate side-effect of raising audience expectations of the soloists, so that the Choral Society rapidly found itself caught in a spiral of expenditure on the importation of soloists from out of town, partly to compensate for the falling standards of the Society itself. Nor were local amateur soloists, even those who were members of the Society, content to sing for glory alone.

Until 1906 the majority of the Society’s performances were given in His Majesty’s Theatre on staging owned by the Society, which had to be erected and taken down for each performance. The 1904 performance was interrupted by screams as the choir platform collapsed without warning, and there was a pause of some minutes while a shaken choir rearranged itself. Only a few were brave enough to get back on the platform – their presence there proving a considerable distraction to the audience who were waiting for the next collapse – and the rest had to jam themselves into the small remaining space as best they might.

By the end of 1912 the Choral Society was paralysed with debt and Messiah was performed by other groups, including the Southern Musical Society, conducted by Sidney Wolf. The first public appearance of Wolf’s new Dunedin Choral Society was a performance of Messiah in aid of the Red Cross Society, Belgian Relief, and Local Distress Funds in 1914. Annual performances followed, interrupted only in 1918 when restrictions on public gatherings during the influenza epidemic forced cancellation. Under Victor Galway’s direction (1922-5) the oratorio acquired a more balanced form, although extensive cuts remained. He also initiated the practice of inviting the Dunedin Male Choir – which he also conducted – to join the Choral Society for Messiah performances (dramatically improving the balance of parts), and of requesting the audience to respect the nature of the work and restrict applause to the end of ‘sections’, to wait for the end of the orchestral accompaniment before applauding, and to either stay till the end or leave at the end of Part 2.

The perception of Messiah as a trophy work made it the subject of bitter dispute in the preparations for the NZ & South Seas International Exhibition in 1925. The formation of a separate Exhibition Choir at the end of 1924 with W. Paget Gale as choir master, took many of the Choral Society’s best singers, and had a severe financial impact on the Society. The Society used this situation to secure agreement at an early date that it would give two performances of Messiah with the Dunedin Male Choir at the Exhibition in December, but Gale (the Choral Society’s former conductor (1905-8), and now Galway’s rival), egged on by a vocal minority of the Exhibition Choir, persuaded the Exhibition Music Committee that a performance by the Exhibition Choir – to be conducted, of course, by Gale himself – was essential. Faced with the alternative of financial ruin, the Choral Society was obliged to accept the participation of the Exhibition Choir in their concert, retaining Galway’s conductorship, but losing the second performance. It is possible that parts of the Exhibition performance were broadcast; the next year’s performance was relayed live from His Majesty’s Theatre by the new 4YA station, one of several broadcast performances by the Society that year. This performance was intended to be a blockbuster production with an advertised choir of 3-400 drawn from various choirs, as well as the Choral Society, but the reality was a choir of roughly 150, and in fact even 300 could not have been fitted on the stage of the theatre.

The long-awaited opening of the Town Hall in 1930 opened up new possibilities for large-scale performance, as well as removing the need for two performances to accommodate the audience, and was celebrated with a Messiah performance by the Choral Society, with representatives from five other choirs. The Town Hall also offered new possibilities for accompaniment. By this time the Society had re-established its own orchestra and now the organ could be used to supply missing parts, or replace inadequate ones. Galway resigned as the Society’s conductor in 1931, but became official organist and that year’s Messiah was accompanied by organ alone.

The Society’s new conductor, Alfred Walmsley, had recently returned from study in England, and immediately set about modernising the Society’s performance of Messiah. The city’s first uncut performance took place in 1932 – a three-hour-plus marathon with only one short interval. Howls of outrage both within and outside the Society greeted the increases in tempo which made it possible, though the objections to the expectation that an audience would be prepared to sit through the ordeal were easily countered – as in the 1885 performance – by the observation that in fact no one had left before the end. The division of the accompaniments between organ and orchestra was also the subject of considerable adverse comment. By the next year it was clear that this had been an attempt to solve major issues of variable pitch disparity between organ and instruments. It was reported that some of players had bought new instruments ‘thus enabling organ and orchestra for the first time to join in a perfect combination.’ Vigorous correspondence on the subject further revealed that the orchestra had its own internal tuning problems, which could leave it with as much as a semitone’s disparity. As the choir itself was increasingly unbalanced to such a degree that even the addition of the Royal Dunedin Male Choir could not reverse the soprano supremacy, it is perhaps not surprising that audience numbers declined sharply. Messiah was not performed in 1934, and even though it was reinstated by popular demand in 1935, turnout was relatively small.

In the face of continuing low audience numbers, even after the choir had been through a very thorough cull, the Society was forced to concede that Messiah would not necessarily balance the accounts for the year, and reduced both the scale and frequency of performances. Public indifference to Messiah disappeared with the outbreak of the Second World War, however, and the work was regarded as the Society’s single indispensable annual production, however reduced its activities might become.

Wartime performances involved extensive collaboration with other choirs – Christchurch Harmonic Society (1939), Oamaru Choral Society (1939, 1940, 1943), Royal Dunedin Male Choir (1940), Returned Soldier’s Choir (1940) and any members of church choirs who cared to join in. The 1944 performance involved a combined choir of 250. The establishment of the 4YA Concert Orchestra in the late 1930s solved the issue of accompaniment, though the quality could be variable, and serious problems with rising pitch as the organ warmed up, continued throughout the 1940s. Walmsley had resigned from the Society in 1943, but continued to act as principal guest conductor until 1946, by which time both audiences and choir had become accustomed to his relatively brisk approach to Messiah. It took several years to adjust to the more conservative interpretation of his successor Charles Collins; the choir tended to bolt.

Under W.H. Walden Mills’s direction (1954-8) the performances achieved a stable plateau of reliable quality, with equally reliable accompaniment by the 4YA Concert Orchestra. This came to an end with the departure of Walden Mills from Dunedin in 1958, and the disestablishment of the 4YA orchestra in 1959, leaving the Choral Society no option but to manage with organ alone. They were able to assemble an orchestra for the following year, and this turned out to be the last performance of the Mozart version of Messiah in Dunedin.

The appointment of Peter Platt as the Choral Society’s conductor in 1961 brought a new approach to baroque repertoire in general. The organ-only accompaniment of the 1959 performance had provoked a lively discussion in the papers of its benefits in allowing greater clarity in the chorus work by reducing the competition, but the decision to discard Mozart’s arrangements in favour of Handel’s autograph version with strings and continuo (organ and harpsichord) was met by the critics with extreme disfavour. It is notable that critical attitudes to tempo had undergone a radical alteration, with Platt’s faster speeds now eliciting such words as ‘buoyant’, ‘exultant’, and ‘exhilarating’ where Walmsley’s reviews had implied a lack of respect for Handel’s intentions. Oboes and bassoons – also used by Handel – were added by Jack Speirs in 1967, though the organ was lost from the continuo group. Variations in annual performances over the next 20 years took place in the inclusion or exclusion of the organ, tempo, and ornamentation – with a remarkable number of complaints in the press of slow tempi after Platt’s departure. From 1986 the organ disappeared altogether, and since 1987 the performances have been bi-annual.

The 1997 performance, with guest conductor David Vine, was the first uncut performance since 1932, and saw the organ returned to the continuo group. Since the appointment of David Burchell in 2000 both these features have become usual practice, with performances directed from the harpsichord, as Handel would have done. A new challenge for the choir has been the presentation of an increasing number of choruses from memory, adding to the immediacy of the performance. This in itself completes a circle – requiring a choir to sing from memory was a trick of George R. West, chief founder of both the Philharmonic Society (1863) and the Dunedin Choral Society (1871).

Tonight’s performance both closes our year of celebration, and launches the Society on a new cycle.

By Dr Jenny Burchell

Published in the programme book for the Handel's Messiah concert, Tuesday 10 December 2013, in the Dunedin Town Hall. Performed by City Choir Dunedin and Southern Sinfonia, conducted by David Burchell. Soloists: Lois Johnston (S), Amanda Cole (A), David Hamilton (T), Jonathan Lemalu (B).

Monday, December 17, 2012

Messiah in Dunedin - The First 50 Years

The discovery of gold at Tuapeka in May 1861 transformed the small provincial town of Dunedin in every respect. With the arrival of as many as 1200 people in a single day new demands were created for entertainment, as well as for accommodation, and for urgent improvements to the already creaking
(or non-existent) infrastucture. Although the majority of the immigrants were prospectors and therefore transient, a good proportion were business opportunists who settled in Dunedin with the expectation of the sort of cultural activities they had been used to.

Public music in Otago had hitherto been almost non-existent due to obstacles ranging from lack of performance venues to lack of actual music, via lack of performance experience or leadership. There were almost no even semi-professional musicians before 1858, and few amateurs with the experience - or the confidence - to set anything up. A correspondent agitating the subject in the Otago Daily Times in 1862 commented:

That there is amateur musical talent in Dunedin there is no doubt, and it only requires a choral society to develop such talent, and the day may be not far distant when “Handel’s Oratoria,” “The Messiah” besides
good secular music, will be performed by the Dunedin choral society.

The Dunedin Musical Association was formed after further correspondence, but gave only one ‘miscellaneous concert’ in May 1862, before collapsing in January 1863 from the combined effects of lack of rehearsal space, poor administration, a shifting population, and an inability to attract female membership. But in late 1863 two new choirs were formed within days of one another. The driving force behind one of these, the Philharmonic Society, was George R. West, a former Cambridge chorister, now instrument and music-seller, and organist; the choir met in the Assembly Rooms over his Music Warehouse in Princes Street. Messiah was a logical first choice of repertoire for a society aiming to specialise in large-scale works as it was by now staple fare for choral societies and church choirs throughout Britain. It is clear that the expectation was that the members would own copies. At the first rehearsal on 31 October, under the conductorship of W. Haydn Flood - who had newly arrived in Dunedin and was soon to become Organist and Choirmaster of St Joseph’s Church - five choruses from Messiah were rehearsed with, as Dunedin’s Daily Telegraph reported, ‘a precision and accuracy which...was a source at once of amazement and gratification’.

It was immediately decided to perform the work, and after a mere eight weeks of rehearsals the first Otago performance of (selections from) Messiah was given on Christmas Eve 1863 in the Oddfellows’ Hall, with accompaniment on the St Paul’s Church harmonium, ‘a powerful double-manual’ instrument, played by Mr W.H. Harrison, although Flood accompanied some of the arias. The choir numbered about 52:

the tenors and basses preponderating, the altos, as usual, being very much in the minority...’ but nonetheless the performance was enthusiastically received, the choruses being given ‘with a firmness and precision highly commendable’. (Daily Telegraph)

At Christmas 1864 the whole work was presented for the first time, this time at the Wesleyan Church in Dowling St and under George West’s conductorship. As in the previous year, it had been hoped to muster an orchestra, but in the event the performance was accompanied by a single violin and a Broadwood piano, lent by Mr West. Due to a series of unexpected circumstances the planned 1865 Christmas performance was postponed to March 1866. This - again with harmonium accompaniment - proved to be the Philharmonic’s last concert containing a single work; following West’s resignation in June 1866 the Society efforts deteriorated into a series of recycled miscellaneous concerts, and in late 1867 it ceased to function.

Although Messiah was not performed as an entity in the next few years, it was probably the most ubiquitous single source of repertoire in Dunedin. The 1860s was a period of intensive building of churches of all denominations; the urgent need for fund-raising was met by concerts in which choruses and solos from Messiah were apt to purpose in both content and availability. With the formation of a new Dunedin Choral Society - again driven by West - in 1871, however, Messiah regained its integrity, appearing as the third concert given by the new Society. This time accompaniment was provided by a semblance of an orchestra. Thereafter the work became pretty much an annual fixture; in 1877 the Society gave two performances at different venues, and in 1878 it was given by the Choral Society at Knox Church (completed in 1876) for the first time.

The 1871 performance was described in reviews as ‘complete’, and subsequent performances were at least substantially complete, though in the performances under the conductorship of Benno Scherek in the 1880s only Parts 1 and 2 were given, ending with the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus. By this time the Society was again in decline, and was declared dormant in May 1888. No Messiah was given that year, and preparation of the 400-strong choir for the music in connection with the NZ and South Seas Exhibition which opened in November 1889 occupied Dunedin’s singers for the preceding seven months to such an extent that no
other major performances were attempted.

In 1890 a performance was given by the Dunedin Musical Association, and in 1891 - it having become unthinkable to have Christmas without a Messiah - a performance was organised by Miss Jennie West, the daughter of George R. West, and a very competent organist, and music teacher. Her reminiscences record the recruitment of singers from the church choirs, and advertisement by nocturnal fly-posting (which had to be removed within 24 hours when the legitimate advertiser threatened her with a summons). The performance was given with a ‘good orchestra’, but also with ‘a row of professional musicians standing at the back of Garrison Hall with score and pencils noting down any delinquencies of mine or the soloists’! The performers numbered 200, and the last trains to Port Chalmers and Mosgiel were held back until 10:30 pm to take the audience home.

Following Jennie West’s example, the 1892 performance - again given by a specially-assembled choir - was directed by Raphaello Squarise, and it was performed at Knox Church in 1893. In 1894 visiting musicians gave performances in August and again in October (to a much diminished audience), but it was not heard at Christmas. In 1895 St Paul’s Cathedral choir and Mornington Presbyterian Church choir joined forces for a performance at St Paul’s after separate rehearsals.

The Choral Society was revived in 1897, but it was St Paul’s Cathedral choir who gave Messiah at Christmas that year, the Choral Society having determined to perform Elijah in December. In 1898 the annual Christmas performance of Messiah finally became the ‘property’ of the Choral Society. In the early years of the twentieth century the performance was usually held in the week before Christmas - several performances were even given on Christmas Day itself. Various features were advertised to attract audiences; in 1907 the orchestra would number 28 performers, in 1909 the Choral Society was ‘assisted
by members of various choirs from Dunedin and the suburbs’, and in 1912 a ‘Chorus of 300 voices’ was advertised. The performance of 1904 was notable for non-musical reasons, however, when a portion of the staging on which the choir was standing collapsed about a third of the way through the performance. Fortunately there were no serious injuries, and the concert continued after some discussion, and a break to re-arrange the singers on the platform. The reviewer noted that the performers remained a little on edge.

By Dr Jenny Burchell

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Wonderful evening of singing at Knox

"Wonderful evening of singing at Knox... splendid choral delivery... unrestrained top Gs soared with exhilirating supremacy..." and the Hallelujah chorus was the highlight of the evening, with the entire audience standing and joining their voices to those of the choir and 60 guest singers. These guest singers also joined City Choir Dunedin in the rehearsals leading up to the concert. What a wonderful experience for singers and audience alike!

Messiah Sing-along, Knox Church, Tuesday 11 December 2012

Follow this link to an album of beautiful pictures of the Messiah Sing-along concert, taken by Ian Thomson.

Were you there? Let us know what you thought of the "sing-along"!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Standing ovation for 'Messiah'

What is it I wonder, that makes people sit for two and a-half hours, listening so intently to Handel's most famous oratorio Messiah, written in just three weeks in 1741.

"Christmas just wouldn't be the same without attending a performance of Messiah," one patron told me.
City of Dunedin Choir and Southern Sinfonia shifted their two-yearly performance of Messiah to the Regent Theatre this year, and the very well-filled venue created a different view and atmosphere, but the familiar choruses and arias certainly rang out loud and true last evening, as Christ's life on earth was outlined in music, and the final Amens were followed by tumultuous applause and standing ovation.

David Burchell conducted magnificently from the harpsichord, with a wise choice of tempi. The 29-member baroque orchestra excelled in their response. The choir's performance, with several choruses from memory, was very impressive and disciplined, despite a little under-weight in the tenor section.

Strong soprano tone reached their pinnacle in the Hallelujah Chorus, and exciting strength and verve from all sections was accorded the big choruses such as Lift Up Your Head.

The three choruses in the "Agony of the Cross" section were delivered with clarity and particularly fine nuance.
Soprano Anna Leese, now well entrenched in a successful international career, was home to perform. The voice is noticeably maturing and rich and all her arias were exquisite with the finest legato tone. Come Unto Him was stunningly performed - so liquid and pure through subtly embellished phrases.

Mezzo Wendy Doyle (Wellington) was successful in a convincing delivery from a particularly low timbre register, and young tenor Cameron Barclay (Auckland) brought clear diction and sincerity to his solos.
Bass Chalium Poppy (Tauranga) performed with confidence and strength although was not always technically secure.

By Elizabeth Bouman, Otago Daily Times 14 December 2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Flash Mob Video

Thanks to Steve Ting for filming City of Dunedin Choir and Southern Sinfonia players at our "flash mob" event on Saturday 10 December at Wall Street mall. Enjoy!

Listen to the Channel 9 interviews with Philippa and Deborah at the flash mob event on the Channel 9 website... 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Messiah score

Especially for new choir members - note that members are expected to have their own copy of Handel's Messiah since this work is performed every second year. The Watkins Shaw edition is recommended.

Here are some options for sourcing a copy:

Copies of Messiah can be purchased online from: 


Amazon Australia

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Messiah worthwhile effort

As a member of the audience, instead of the choir, for the first time for this event, I would like to say how much I agreed with the sentiments of the reviewer. However I knew of course that the performance would be world class. I think the performance was better than ever and the choral work without music was very effective and the effort put into this by members of the choir very worthwhile.

I am back in Dunedin now, as you know, and I would like to catch up with old friends and also to sing in the proms 2010.

[Janice Royds responding to the review of the Messiah performance on 8 December, by Glenn Linde on]

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Magnificent performance

I have been singing the Messiah since 1967, and just wanted to report that my husband of 37 years, who has been to every Messiah I have sung over the duration of our marriage (what staying power!!) found the performance magnificent - he even used the word 'riveting'!!!

Cheers Loraine

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Praise for Messiah

Overheard in the audience: "This is the best performance of Messiah I've heard in 40 years!"

Seen on

Tuesday 8 December 2009: Concert Review: Messiah
Mighty work gets mighty rendition

Last evening in the Dunedin Town Hall, the City of Dunedin Choir and Southern Sinfonia with four guest soloists presented the full work, with all the magnitude and passion this work deserves.

In his fifth time presenting Messiah in Dunedin, David Burchell conducted from the harpsichord, and the orchestra and choir responded with expressive shaping and shading.

From the audience, I followed from my family's 100-year-old well-worn score, pondering over the freshness in interpretation at each hearing.

This performance featured a lightness and brilliance overall, while never losing substance.

(Extract from the review by Elizabeth Bouman in the Otago Daily Times of 9 December 2009.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Messiah 2007 with Anna Leese

The following is an extract from the review of this performance, by Elizabeth Bouman in the Otago Daily Times:

"Both the Choir and the Sinfonia are a credit to a city of this size and excelled in conquering the demands of this three-hour Baroque marathon.

The 110-strong choir gave energy and full resonant sound for Burchell to draw upon for the big choruses. Setting their sights early in "And the Glory" and "Glory to God", phrasing and articulation were generally good, with passionate voicing. As to be expected the "Hallelujah" chorus was a highlight, rising to a thrilling climax...

I thought the choir was fantastic.

Soloists add the gilding to any oratorio and having Dunedin-trained Anna Leese in the country for a short visit of recitals was a real bonus.

Prolonged applause and footstamping followed the resounding "Amens", and tired but jubilant musicians felt the buzz of completing yet another outstanding delivery of this 1742 masterpiece."

Performance: Handel's Messiah, Dunedin Town Hall, 11 December 2007

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Sublime performance

 Performance: Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, Dunedin Town Hall, 8 September 2007 

The City of Dunedin Choir with members of the Southern Consort of Voices and the St Paul's Cathedral Choir, the Southern Sinfonia, tenor David Hamilton, mezzo-soprano Helen Medlyn and bass David Griffiths, with conductor David Burchell, Dunedin Town Hall. Extract from the review by Elizabeth Bouman in the Otago Daily Times:

"This late Romantic oratorio, written by Edward Elgar in 1900, is challenging for any choir. Saturday's performance was sublime and all credit to organisers for presenting such a grand work in our city."

"Stunning choral sound lifted Praise in the Holiest to great heights, contrasting with subtle shading of the many gentle more restrained passages. The Demon's Chorus was a highlight - rythmically taut and contrastingly vibrant."

"Conductor David Burchell is to be complimented on leading both Choir and Sinfonia successfully through this two-hour journey with unflagging energy, an impressive sense of drama, and sensitivity."