Greetings! HA HA HA HA HA!
Here’s a “golden-oldie” from the depths of time, underneath the lj-cut. Originally written for the RMPS “members-only” website, this is its first outing in public.
The following document purports to be a transcript of an interview with a chorister of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Society, regarding its performances of G.F. Handel’s “Messiah, an Oratorio” in March 2002. Some of the editorial markings would appear to have excised statements of controversial import.
Q. Who are you? What do you do?
PL. My name’s Philip Legge; I’m a physicist by training, but owing to the seriousness with which science is taken in this country, I’m working in the computer industry. I’ve an interest in many facets of music theory and practice, and I’m currently preparing performing editions of the Berlioz Te Deum and other choral works for the Choral Public Domain Library*. I’m also making an edition of Mozart’s Great Mass in C which is coming along well. I wish I’d learned piano as a child – it would have made things a lot easier for me – but I found it uncomfortable to take lessons from my mother, as she was a piano teacher herself. Not being an actual tenor, I auditioned for RMPS as a countertenor; at Andrew Wailes’ suggestion I’m singing the alto part in works in older genres where countertenors are historically appropriate, like the Handel for instance, and tenor for more modern pieces.
[* A web site devoted to free choral publications, http://www.cpdl.org/ – Ed.]
Q. Give us a glimpse of you, in your own world, working on, or thinking about, MESSIAH 2002:
PL. Uhh, I’m glad you asked. I don’t even like the thing. It’s [unintelligible] in my opinion.
Q. Umm, okay. So what are you doing in a choir devoted to annual performances of Handel’s Messiah if you don’t even like the work?
PL. Good question. It’s been years since I’ve sung with a big choir, or it had been, but then I heard from one of my spies in the MSO [Melbourne Symphony] that they were going to put on a Mahler 8 for the centenary of Federation. I’ve been a long-standing admirer of Mahler’s symphonies, and the 8th in particular, so when it was officially announced I auditioned with the ABC – Jonathan Grieves-Smith actually did my audition – and most of the people who passed their audition ended up rehearsing with RMPS, and were given a ridiculously protracted rehearsal schedule. I already knew the work inside-out, since I’d owned a full orchestral score for ten years. Jonathan also said that Markus Stenz’s preferred recording was the one I already owned.
The thing which made rehearsals bearable was that I already knew quite a few people in RMPS from my days in University choral societies, and pretty much the same group would be going to the pub after rehearsal to socialise over a few drinks and have some fun. After the Mahler finished I kind of stayed along for the rest of the year to keep up with the friends I’d made – the next concert was the Brahms Requiem, which I’d sung about ten years ago, so that was worth doing again.
So if it weren’t for my friends in the Phil, I’d probably not be very excited about doing Messiah over and over again. Basically, going to the pub afterwards is about the only thing that interests me about rehearsing Messiah. But other things come up, like for instance Mozart’s Great Mass in C, and this choral symphony by Philip Bracanin, which are much more interesting to me because they’re not overdone.
Q. What is it about Messiah that you don’t like, if you don’t mind me asking?
PL. A few things – it’s too long, most of the choruses are very mannered and tedious, a lot of the arias are definitely pedestrian, and are only famous because everyone knows them. Did I say it’s too long? It’s a rather clapped-out old oratorio with too much of a reputation behind it, which choirs are obliged to perform to get bums on seats.
And because it gets performed so often, you also get a huge number of very indifferent performances of it. I was once in a good performance with Neil McEwan conducting, and TUMS [Tasmania University Musical Society – Ed.] and the TSO [Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra] in Hobart, but then we had to go to Launceston and there was a different choir singing in the Launceston concert. Neil encouraged me to come along since I had been to all of the Hobart rehearsals, and tenors were in very short supply in the Launceston choir.
Anyway, in Launceston it turned out they were using a different score – the old Ebenezer Prout one, when we’d used Watkins Shaw in Hobart – and had different markings contrary to the conductor’s, and then to boot they didn’t watch the conductor very much. The basses behind me were often a crotchet behind Neil in the semiquaver runs, and were extremely woolly. At the start of ‘The Lord gave the word’, which is a cappella, I held the minim on ‘word’ for its full value, as conducted by Neil, but everyone else came off early after only a crotchet, because that’s what they were used to, apparently. A friend in the audience told me afterwards that he could hear my singing. Thank God we don’t have indifferent performances with Andrew.
Q. Is there anything you do like about it then?
PL. Yes, there are some good individual numbers in it – like ‘The trumpet shall sound’, ‘Why do the nations?’ – but there’s plenty of other Handel works with choruses and arias just as good or better or more interesting, but they simply don’t get performed. Instead we get this silly oratorio performed over and over again, especially at Christmas time and Eastertide, when it would be nice to hear something different, say Bach’s Christmas or Easter Oratorios. Or Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ. Or [inaudible – Ed.]. Or...
Q. ... Perhaps I could ask you about the Messiah concerts from your own perspective, at least in terms of performance, even if you don’t like the music.
PL. Well, in general I’m pleased with the way Foetus...
Q. Andrew Wailes that is...
PL. Yes. Uhh, I’m pleased with his tempi and interpretation, and especially his use of the new edition by Clifford Bartlett from Oxford University Press. It’s a pity though that there’s too many people using the ancient Novello edition by Prout from 1902 or whenever, because if you can’t be bothered getting a newer edition then you’re especially not going to bother correcting the numerous differences between the Prout and the newer editions; add to that the old scores probably have got ten different sets of markings from ten different performances.
My own score is a different one again, an urtext orchestral score, but at least I’ve gone through it with a fine-toothed comb to check the accuracy of the musical text versus the Bartlett edition. Unfortunately the Bartlett full score was too expensive, and if I have the option I prefer to know what the other performers are doing, thank you very much.
Andrew’s very good with attention to detail and period performing practice, even if I don’t agree with everything he does; though it would be nice to have a proper contralto soloist rather than a mezzo grovelling for low notes and then inventing cadenzas in the soprano range, maybe he could split the very lowest parts of Messiah off to a countertenor and employ five soloists. Handel even used a treble soloist instead of sopranos, and countertenors and female altos in the same performance.
It’s also pleasing to see the rapport Andrew has with the Australian Classical Players, I feel there’s more of an opportunity for actual music-making than what you get wheeling in some jet-setting conductor to go through the motions with the MSO and Chorale. And we’ve had some great soloists, Helena Dix and David Hamilton would be my pick of the soloists we’ve had for the three recent Messiahs, though against my principles I liked hearing the bass arias sung by a baritone for a change [Daniel Gare – Ed.].
Q. And what part are you actually singing, alto? Tenor?
PL. Alto. I’m happy to be singing alto in the Handel – the writing for alto is quite low, and I can use chest voice to add a good deal of weight to the lowest parts of the range. I’ve sung tenor in the past, which was okay, but more tiring on my voice. By contrast, after singing the alto in Messiah at the end of last year [16 December 2001 – Ed.], my voice was so fresh I could have sung the whole thing again on the spot. Technically things like the semiquaver runs are much easier for me to articulate in falsetto rather than singing in tenor voice.
Q. Anything else?
PL. Oh, and it’s funny to sit back in the altos and listen to the tenors and basses singing flat and behind the beat.
Q. Surely not all the time!
PL. No, they’re not that bad all the time, just usually when they can’t be bothered. But then as far as amateur choirs go, my favourite example of bad musicianship recently was with the [name deleted], singing the Berlioz Te Deum. At one point almost the entire choir was ignoring the conductor and cutting off too soon at a series of long pauses, and because I was singing what the composer had written and what the conductor was conducting, it ended up sounding like I was singing a solo since the rest of them had stopped much too early, like several seconds.
After the third time in rehearsal where I was following the conductor correctly, virtually singing by myself, the tenor next to me suggested I should sing what everyone else was doing – even if it was wrong! So I said, “Well, I’m just singing what the composer actually wrote,” – now there’s a novel idea! – and he said, “What the conductor was doing wasn’t clear.” Which was rubbish, since the conductor’s beat was perfectly clear, and I said so. The tenor then responded that I shouldn’t be trying to stand out, which is true, but I argued, “if everyone else were actually doing what they were supposed to, there wouldn’t be a problem”.
The mistake kept on being made, since no one in the choir seemed to have any idea of the orchestral context, or was bright enough to look at any part other than their own [or] – heaven forbid – look at the orchestral reduction in the piano part. What’s the use of putting a piano part in the vocal score if choristers aren’t going to pay attention to it? Of course, the next day [deleted name?] grievous bodily harm came along and corrected them to sing through the pause correctly. And this was one hour before the actual performance.
It is clear from the transcript that the original tape recording ran out before the interviewee had finished. However, the editor crossed out the following continuation before the tape ran out:
[Q.] That’s all we have time for I think...
[PL.] ... I’ve never seen so many sheep assembled in the one place. I couldn’t imagine that you could have so many people in a choir and yet none of them seemed interested in what the orchestra was doing, what the other performers were doing, what the whole thing sounded like. It was ... incredibly unmusical, to see such complete disinterest, but obviously it’s clear that you can’t have people actually thinking in large choirs.
Copyright © 2002 Philip Legge [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Australia]
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