Messiah- post concert report

I thought I would take a minute to follow up on my Bath Philharmonia Messiah, since I had previously mentioned my preparations for it. Of course, all my musician friends and readers are probably well sick of Messiah, since just about everyone I know has played, sung or conducted one this week.


Our concert took place in the idyllic and unspoiled village of Beaminster, Dorset in St Mary’s Church, a very beautiful building that seems exceptionally well looked after. Almost alone among UK churches I’ve worked in, it seemed to have a working heating system that had actually been turned on before our rehearsal so the musicians didn’t have to play in their parkas and gloves. The only remotely negative thing I could say about the venue is that it’s a pity that they chose to carpet such a large part of such an ancient building- it rather killed the acoustics, which one would hope to be wonderfully resonant with all that stone work everywhere.

(St Mary’s Church, Beaminster)

Nonetheless, we had a nearly full house for the evening. This was a chamber Messiah, an increasingly popular approach to the piece. Onstage was a string quintet, harpsichord, two oboes, two trumpets and timpani. In addition to the four youthful and very good soloists, we had a professional choir of 9 musicians- 3 sopranos, 2 male altos (which gave a wonderfully churchy color to the sound), 2 tenors and 2 basses. I’d been just the tiniest bit annoyed to find that several members of the choir were unable to make the single rehearsal on the day- you expect work conflicts with amateurs, but to me any paycheck means you clear your schedule for all of the work, not just take the bits that are convenient. However, in spite of the fact that my take on the piece is radically different from the other two conductors doing this tour, they were more than able to assimilate everything I wanted by the evening.

This is the beauty of a professional choir- you only have to explain something once and they’ve got it. The most dangerous movement for us was probably Behold the Lamb of God where the rhythm is notated completely differently in the Watkins Shaw edition (which they were singing from) from the way I do it. It’s one thing to explain that everything is double dotted, but much trickier to explain that all the pickup notes are of a different value to what they have on the page- it’s easy to remember on the first entrance, but also easy to forget later on. This is exactly the sort of thing that one might give up on when you’re only having a single rehearsal, but with a pro choir, one shouldn’t ever give up your goals. After all, they’ve got the best chance of doing the kind of detail you want- they have the training and the technique. 

The relationship of choral conductors to orchestras and orchestral conductors to choirs is a controversial one. Most people talk about shortcomings of ability- choir folks who mouth words at instrumentalists without showing any kind of a beat pattern, or orchestra types who never show the choir a closing consonant. In this instance, your not talking about what happens when a choir conductor conducts an orchestra or the other way ’round, but what happens when a BAD choir conductor conducts and orchestra, and vis-a-versa. More often, and more importantly, it’s important to remember that a conductor’s expectations are just as important as their abilities. A good choir or orchestra conductor might often not ask as much of the “other” group as they would of the one in their field on a purely musical level. I’m well aware that a chorus master like Gavin Carr from Chorus Angelorum has a breadth of knowledge of vocal technique that I can’t compete with even though I have conducted and prepared choirs for many years, but I can ask just as much of them musically as he can- you don’t ask you don’t get. (Conducting technique note- “asking” is done with hands and eyes, in the concert!).

I can remember an early boss telling me that in situations like this, changing things from the way they’ve been rehearsed and performed on previous concerts is suicide. Maybe he only felt that way because in general he didn’t have very good ideas and was better off stealing those of others (hi ,J.). I decided to go for my version of the piece in the rehearsal, and was so glad I had in the concert. Messiah is too long, too complex and too personal to fake a version- it has to come from your center. Also, the band and the chorus were so responsive as we went along that it would have been a huge waste of time not to try and make things happen. After all- this is what conducting is for: making music.

It’s funny- when one starts a day like this, where nobody knows you, there tend to be a lot of questions. The problem with this is that language is such an imprecise tool for making music. People want to know how you want this, or are you doing that. In a big piece like Messiah, all I really want to say is about three basic things about the style and how to handle recurring bits of notation. Otherwise, it’s all about conducting. Predictably, we had about 7 minutes of talking, questions and answers in the first 10 minutes, then probably 10 more minutes over the remaining 2 ½ hours, almost all of which was as simple as “double dotting here,” or “no da capo on this one,” or “skip to the last rehearsal letter for now.”

Anyway, a very enjoyable day and evening, with a great audience response. Among the VIPs there was the chair of the Beaminster Festival, who declared it “absolutely, bar none, the very best Messiah I’ve ever heard!” He told me to put that on the website, so I am….

As I mentioned before, it took me many years to love Messiah. It really is the most amazing music, though, and such a joy to perform. It’s such incredibly expressive stuff- the voice leading, the phrasing the shapes, the colors, it is all incredibly rich with possibility for the performer. This may sound a little odd, but I find the only part of it I don’t think is absolute perfection is the libretto, especially given its provenance. However, this has me thinking that I need to learn the rest of the Handel oratorios- I bet they’re just as musically spectacular and probably have better libretti….

Concert info-

Bath Philharmonia

Leader- Sophie Langdon
Chorus Angelorum

Director- Gavin Carr

Handel- Messiah (complete)

Charlotte Carter- Soprano

Hannah Pedley- Alto

Alexander Sprague- Tenor

Craig Bissex- Bass


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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2 comments on “Messiah- post concert report”

  1. James Potter

    Dear Ken,

    As one of the altos that night, I’d like to take this opportunity to say what a pleasure it was singing under you. It’s always nice to work with someone who so clearly understands the piece, and the various needs of choir and orchestra. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    Stumbling across this website was wonderful. It’s a fascinating insight for a music student such as myself – and one fairly taken aback by and unused to the epithet ‘professional’ being applied to him!

    Thanks once more, I hope I get the chance to see you conduct again.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi James-

    What a kind comment- thanks for getting in touch. You were all quite a treat to work with. I trust 2008 will bring you lots of interesting projects.

    So glad to know you’ve enjoyed the site so far- do come back and more comments are always very welcome.

    All very best


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