The premiere of Handel's Messiah was so popular the publicity material requested that men remove their swords and ladies refrain from wearing hoop skirts. It was April 1742 and if there was one concert St George's Cathedral music director Joseph Nolan could be transported back in time to witness, it might be this one.
Nolan is reconstructing a Lent performance of the Messiah, featuring the Cathedral Consort singers from St George's Cathedral, that comes close to what the original audience would have heard. It is 270 years since the premiere and despite recent interest in historically accurate performance practice there are still misconceptions about Handel's much-loved oratorio.
For starters the premiere was held in a theatre. In a groundbreaking move Nolan is taking the performance out of the cathedral and into the Perth Concert Hall.
"The Dean and I feel the Consort has reached a remarkable standard. We want to take them beyond the cathedral so they can be seen as a WA cultural jewel."
Perth Handel scholar and Emeritus Professor at the University of WA Sandra Bowdler says the performance of the oratorio at the concert hall is appropriate.
"Handel wrote relatively little music to be performed in a church," she says. "Messiah was premiered in Dublin's new Fishamble Street Music Hall. Perth Concert Hall is more its natural home in a funny way than the cathedral."
The premiere of Messiah was in Dublin, not London. Handel was living in London at the time but was wooed to Dublin partly because of politics - theatre music was considered profane and subversive by some ecclesiastics in London - and because he had a friend who would organise the band.
After two seasons of subscription concerts that established his reputation, he tweaked his score to suit the available artists and advertised the premiere of his new oratorio. The work was later performed in London in a different version, again adapted for the artists he had available.
Like Handel, Nolan has made sure he has the right musicians in place. Nolan is using the same singers from the sellout performance of Messiah in June last year, a co-production with Festival Baroque Australia, and is using the same trumpet player from the east coast. He has also secured Paul Wright to lead the orchestra.
"We couldn't do a period performance without him," Nolan says. "I'm hesitant to use the word genius but the man has something special. He knows so much and plays so well and his phrasing is perfect."
Professor Bowdler has pieced together various scores to reconstruct the Dublin version, which is not available in a published edition. The running order is slightly different and the aria If God Be For Us is for alto rather than soprano soloist. She hopes the main theme of the oratorio will come across more clearly.
"Many performances chop Act Three around and often leave out the core of the message, which is man's redemption through Christ's suffering. The aria If God Be For Us is the bottom line. I don't think people need to be Christians to appreciate Messiah but I do think they get more out of it if they understand it."
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