What a joy it was on Friday evening, Dec. 17, to turn off our cell phones, park our bagpipes as directed by the chair of the Cowichan Symphony Society and prepared to be surrounded by joyful Christmas music. The Victoria Symphony Orchestra took the stage to perform Christmas tunes by two great German composers, of the 18th century, Bach and Handel.
The program started with light and lyrical music composed especially for the joyful season of Christmas. In this performance we heard the part describing the birth of Jesus.
After the gentle opening chorus sung by the 12 person choir, muffled by obligatory COVID masks, the soprano, Hélène Brunet, and the baritone took over. Brunet’s beautiful voice and clear enunciation were a delight to listen to and then she was joined by the powerful bass voice of Brett Polegato which filled the hall with glorious sound. Both of these singers sang with such clarity that we could hear every word they sang despite them singing in German.
Maestro Ivars Taurins had the orchestra reacting to every gesture of his dramatic style of conducting. Indeed there were occasions when I thought he was trying to encourage the audience to sing along with him as he often turned and faced us as he conducted the choir.
After the intermission it was time for Handel, in particular the part of the Messiah that deals with the Christmas story. First performed in Dublin at Easter time, this very popular piece by Handel, with a Libretto by Charles Jennens, an English landowner and frequent collaborator with Handel, was an instant success. It was also a firm favourite of Handel as he included it each year as a fundraiser for his favourite charity. Eight days before his death, in 1759, he heard it for the last time.
Maestro Taurins started the work in fine triumphant style getting the maximum impact from the small brass section and timpani. Then with the well-known ‘Comfort ye’ we got the first chance to really hear the tenor Aaron Sheehan who clearly justified his reputation as a first-rate interpreter of Handel. Every word came out clearly and rang through the hall. I could not help wondering if somebody had spoken to Maestro Taurins during the intermission, because for the entire Messiah he allowed the soloists to shine and never overpowered them with the orchestra. As a result we got to hear the beautiful voice of the alto, Meg Bragle. Her voice was not the most powerful in the evening but it made up for this by spot on timing and clear enunciation of every familiar phrase.
Polegato again dominated the hall with his rendition of “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”.
The ‘Pifa’ which is a cradle song based on the bagpipes played by shepherds was so obviously a lullaby because the maestro demonstrated the rocking cradle movement with his arms as it introduced the shepherds abiding in the fields before they went to see the babe. This gave the soprano the chance to introduce the shepherds leading up to her big moment in the evening: ‘Rejoice greatly’. This was followed by the alto’s gentle introduction to her duet with the soprano in ‘He shall feed his flock…’
This moment of gentle calm was shattered as everyone leapt to their feet for the triumphant end to the work; the great ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. Cynics might say that the tradition of standing for the last chorus ensured the performers a standing ovation no matter what their performance had been but in this case it was well deserved as the entire concert had been excellent. I was particularly impressed by the performance of the timpanist Karl Williams and the steady but unobtrusive playing of Marco Vitale on the harpsichord.
For some of us the performance was a surprise because we are used to the huge orchestras and choirs that usually perform the Messiah. For me certainly this smaller chamber-sized version was an eye opener. Everyone I spoke to afterwards thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you VSO.
The next concert to be brought to us by the Cowichan Symphony Society is a baroque concert by Victoria Baroque led by Julia Wedman. It will include works by Biber, Purcell, Schmelzer and a recent work ‘White Man’s Cattle’. Not to be missed at Brentwood College School in Mill Bay on Sunday, Jan. 16 at 2 p.m.
Mike Mills is a board member of the Cowichan Symphony Society.