One of my great-great-great-grandfathers, William Graham Peverley (1811 – 1893), established a ship-building business in East Balmain, Sydney, in 1853 or 1854. The location was east of St Mary’s Street and south of Pearsons Wharf, an area which is nowadays a harbourside park, Illoura Reserve. The suburb of Balmain had been named for Dr William Balmain (1762-1803), a surgeon with the First Fleet, and later Principal Surgeon in the colony of New South Wales, who was first to be granted land on the peninsula. They have always bred them tough there – the saying is: Balmain boys don’t cry. Among the residents have been two Premiers of NSW, Sir Henry Parkes and Neville Wran, neither someone to mess with. And the State MLA for Balmain in recent times was the very tough Dawn Fraser, Olympic swimmer and publican, elected as an Independent.
It therefore felt like a chance meeting of a long-disappeared friend to enter the Church of St Giles-in-the-Fields in London’s West End this week, and discover it had been Dr Balmain’s home church upon his return to Britain in 1802. At the back of the church is a plaque erected by The Balmain Association. The church was the venue for a performance of Handel’s Messiah, by Solistes de Musique Ancienne and Siglo de Oro, under the direction of the latter’s founder, Patrick Allies. This was the second time I have seen SMA perform, having heard their superb Sloane Square concert earlier in the year. This time they had an audience of about 50 people, perhaps one quarter of the church’s capacity.
Despite the empty seats, the acoustics of this church were much better than that of Holy Trinity Sloane Square, and the performance was just superb. St. Giles has two long parallel first-floor balconies, each about 1/4 of the width of the building, running the length of the church, and these two overhangs, together with their supporting columns and multiply-surfaced stone decorations, created strong reverberation, with a medium-duration delay. The result was to make the choir and orchestra sound at least 5 times their size, filling the space with sound. Even sitting at the back of the church, the sound was both warm and clear, something rare in churches, whose acoustics usually make concert performances sound either fuzzy or cold. As with their previous concert, SMA made use of the space, having two of the trumpeters in Part I play from the left balcony.
This was one of the greatest Messiahs I have ever heard. All the vocal soloists were excellent, and projected well. Similarly, we could hear well the instrumental soloists (which was not the case in the earlier SMA concert). Unfortunately, the program notes did not list the names of the soloists specifically; I was only able to infer the name of one vocal soloist, William Morrison, who’s aria in Part I was extremely clear and very moving. Joel Newsome’s trumpet solo, on an instrument with cylindrical valves, on “The trumpet shall sound” in Part III, was also very powerful. I left the church uplifted and inspired.
I had not known before reading the program notes that Handel’s librettist for The Messiah, Charles Jennens (1700-1773), was a supporter of the Stuarts, and that his words for the oratorio – people in darkness awaiting a redeemer who returns in triumph and glory, etc – could be taken as political commentary on the Hanoverians, even as late as this (1741).
A very different experience last night, in another London church, St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate. This was a performance of (excerpts from) Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and his Mass in B Minor, by the Medici Choir and the Brandenburg Baroque Soloists. The church this time was overflowing, with perhaps 250 people seated and more standing at the back. The acoustics of this church with its much higher ceiling and absence of balconies was very different to that of St. Giles. The performers were not raised above the audience, and their sound disappeared upwards; it seemed not to come back to us.
Sitting behind a column meant I head some sounds with clarity — those of the choristers I could see — while other singers and the orchestra were fuzzy. For the most part, the soloists sang without projecting their voices. At first, I thought this was due to the acoustics, but on occasion the soloists did project, and the difference was noticeable. Why would a professional opera singer, as these soloists were, not project, I wonder? Why not seek to fill the space one is performing in? The lady who sang “Schlafe, mein Liebster” in the Oratorio, was particularly disappointing, filling powerfully the ears of the lucky people in the first row, it seemed, and no one else. Those of us at the back of the church could barely hear her. Was this due to some silly authentic-performance notion or a Lutheran disdain for aural spectacle, perhaps?
I suspect some silly notion at play. Bach’s music in the Mass was “improved” by the addition of a new section composed by director John Baird for this concert. One has to admire the self-confidence of someone willing to try to complete what Bach did not himself finish. However, the real absurdity for me, and evidence of a lack of musical seriousness, was to end the concert with the congregational singing of Christmas carols: rather than leaving with the sound of Bach in one’s ears, instead it would be, “We wish you a merry Christmas”. It was important for me that my ears and mind be not so corrupted, so I left before the end. What a contrast in integrity of musical purpose between these two concerts! And how great again were the Solistes de Musique Ancienne and Siglo de Oro.