Handel's Messiah with AAM & VOCES8 | Interviews with Barnaby Smith, Christopher Moore and Jonathan Pacey
The Academy of Ancient Music joins forces with soloists from VOCES8, VOCES8 Scholars, Apollo5 and the VOCES8 Foundation Choir to perform Handel’s beloved oratorio Messiah from the Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge on 3 December, 2019. VOCES8 Artistic Director Barnaby Smith, baritone Christopher Moore and bass Jonathan Pacey spoke to AAM in an exclusive interview about their favourite arias, formative memories of Messiah, performing in Cambridge and the role of technology in helping to spread classical music to the widest possible audience. For tickets to this performance, click here.
Handel’s great oratorio has become a seasonal staple; what makes the AAM/VOCES8 interpretations special?
(Barnaby Smith) “Performances of Messiah come in all shapes and sizes, and our rendition is more on the chamber end of the spectrum. This means we have a great opportunity to create music in the moment, and can use the agility of a compact performance group to relish the virtuosic elements of the score. As a director, I am always focused on bringing the text and the narrative to the front of the musician’s minds; Messiah offers us the opportunity to tell an incredible story, indeed that of a miracle, which I can promise we will deliver directly and with great fervency.”
(Jonathan Pacey) “So many performances of this piece around this time of year happen with large choral societies. I like that our interpretation is more intimate, I think that gives us a more direct connection with the audience, and brings out the humanity in the text.”
Desert island dilemma: if you could pick one movement (aria, recitative, chorus) from Messiah, what would it be and why?
(B. S.) “This is a very difficult question because I think the Messiah is so good because of its overall construction, and ability to mark both major Christian feasts. If I had to select one moment, I’d probably choose the final chorus, specifically the ‘Amen’. It demonstrates incredible compositional technique, building from a single Bass entry all the way into a triumphant climax, constantly ebbing and flowing in energy, direction and rhetorical connotation as it progresses; but I also love the way that in one fugal subject, Handel captures so much of the differing emotive content of the entire work: empathy, enlightenment, enchantment, triumph, joy, beauty, regality, and the list could go on.”
(Christopher Moore) “The final ‘Amen’ chorus. The way that the fugue builds through the choir and orchestra is a masterclass in raising tension in music. The last ‘Amen’ cadence acts as a triumphant affirmation, not just of the Messiah story, but of any prayer, public or private. Above all, it’s just a lot of fun to sing.”
(J. P.) “I would pick the Pifa in the second part. Rather like the equivalent movement at the beginning of the second part of Bach’s Weinachtsoratorium this is a beautiful musical depiction of the fields where the shepherds are tending their sheep. For me it takes a wonderfully reflective moment of pause in the middle of the breakneck action.”
How many times have you performed Messiah before? What was your first Messiah experience – do you have a formative memory of the piece?
(B. S.) “Too many to count I think, but yet it never gets old. My first Messiah experience was as a chorister at Westminster Abbey, and I remember that Dame Emma Kirkby and James Bowman were both singing. A formative memory however would be the first time I conducted the work, 14 years ago now in the Foundling Museum in London. As a passionate advocate of music in the community, I find Messiah especially touching for the fact that it demonstrates the humanity of the composer who gave so much to the Foundling Hospital in London, and who instigated regular charitable performances of the work for its benefit from 1750; Handel remarked after being congratulated on such fine entertainment: “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. For I wished to make them better.“”
(C. M.) “I’ve performed the Messiah a great many times in various settings, but my earliest introduction to the work was, I suspect, the same as many people’s; singing the Hallelujah Chorus on Christmas Day as a chorister. I remember the experience clearly as being a moment I thought that I might like to be a musician.”
(J. P.) “I honestly have no idea how many times I have performed this wonderful piece, but it would be well into double figures! One of the most formative experiences of singing it was with a group of eight singers I started with some friends when I was about seventeen called ‘Mousai’. We sang the whole piece, uncut, with a modern orchestra at modern pitch, and with step-out solos, with only eight singers. It was a workout! But a fantastic one.”
As a graduate of Trinity College Choir, what does returning to the chapel for an occasion like this mean to you?
(C. M.) “Trinity Chapel is a very special place for a number of reasons. I sang here for three years in the choir, where I learnt most of what I know about choral singing, and made music with people who are now my closest friends. It was also the place that I was properly introduced to Baroque music and period performance; we recorded Bach’s B Minor Mass here with Stephen Layton and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and I participated in regular Trinity College Music Society performances of Bach’s Cantatas both as a singer and director. I may be biased, but I’d say the chapel has the best acoustic for Baroque music in Cambridge, if not further afield. So singing the Messiah here will be a nostalgic and deeply musically satisfying experience.”
(J. P.) “I have made so many memories in this building, it’s always a privilege to return. The memory of the number of concerts I had a hand in organising while on the committee of the College Music Society does sometimes bring me out in a cold sweat when I enter the ante-chapel, but that’s quickly dispelled when remembering just what a fabulous ’singers’ acoustic it contains, and the sound of horse hair on gut string is elevated so much by it.”
You’re fortunate to travel the world as singers and performers. Cambridge is often referred to as the ‘home of choral music’; have you found this to be true, and what is it about your learning here that you use in your daily pursuit of choral excellence?
(C. M.) “Where else in the world can you walk down the street at about 5.30pm and, passing ten different chapels, hear ten different choirs singing evensong? There is always music happening in Cambridge, whether it is evensong, an opera, a concert or a musical. I believe as artists we should have as broad a range of musical experience as possible, and anyone who comes to this city cannot fail to encounter people, pieces and performances that will shape their lives both in music and out of it. On choral music specifically, one of the things I find most exciting about Cambridge is that its choirs are made up of people who study a most diverse range of subjects; but when they get to chapel, whatever day they’ve had at the lab or in the library, they can leave it at the door and escape for an hour or so into evensong. They work tirelessly to serve the quiet ritual of a musical tradition not found anywhere else in the world in quite the same way. That is why Cambridge is such a special place for choral music.”
(J. P.) “The wonderful (and initially daunting) thing about Cambridge is that you’ll always find someone better at something than you are, which always gives you something to strive for. Also the sheer amount of choral music happening here on a daily basis during term time is incredible, so you can be very busy if you want to be! I think the first year was spent finding out for the first time just what my voice (and my brain!) could handle at any one time, and the latter two spent doing as much as possible within that limit to take advantage of as many opportunities as I could.”
The majority of VOCES8’s work is as an a cappella octet, and performing with an orchestra must be a different experience; tell me about that – is there something about AAM particularly that helps you enjoy the collaboration?
(B. S.) “As a team of eight singers who perform so much together (over 120 concerts a year), we can achieve really great things with our music making; one of the potential drawbacks is that it can get a little bit insular at times. We always have to challenge ourselves to be keeping our minds and ears open to different ideas. Collaborating with other world-class musicians is very nourishing and helps us overcome any potential problems of living too much in our own bubble.
The AAM is a collection of world-leading specialists in their art, and when working with them I love to share, but mostly to learn. It is a privilege to be able to direct the ensemble, and for me that position is one of facilitative leadership, rather than autocratic direction; helping the musicians draw their unique individual expertise into a cohesive group performance. Due to the incredible skill-sets, experiences and ideas that the musicians bring to the room, combined with performing such a well-down work, I will be able to stand on the podium and make decisions in the moment, and simply have fun with the musicians; this offers us the opportunity to make something unique and exciting, and from my perspective is what live music should always be about, but is rarely achievable.”
(C. M.) “It’s always enjoyable to collaborate with other musicians. When working on Messiah with the AAM, one is very aware that both singers and orchestra have performed the piece innumerable times with different directors and interpretations. However, rather than a sense of disingenuity or worse, boredom, I find that choir and orchestra have a desire to find something new, to be inventive and exploratory. Performing with the AAM always shows me new ways of drawing emotion from such a well-known work.”
(J. P.) “The great thing about working with the AAM is that they are just such fine, musical players! It really feels like a collaborative process, one where the triangle of singer, director, orchestra is constantly changing its dimensions as we test and experiment to bring something new to what is – in this case at least – familiar music. Especially as a soloist, you can feel very encouraged to take a risk, knowing that if something doesn’t quite work in rehearsal, we’ve all learnt something from it.”
AAM and VOCES8 have a rich partnership together, and we will perform three baroque masterworks this season and appear on recording together for the first time; what are you most looking forward to in working with the orchestra?
(B. S.) “I enjoyed recording and editing our forthcoming release very much, and am excited for the audience to be able to hear that in 2020. Looking forward I think Bach’s B Minor Mass would have to be my choice; it just pips Haydn’s Die Schöpfung (Creation) – which is next season – to the post. I’m excited to hear the obligato playing, and also to work with the orchestra to find the arc of such a masterwork.”
(C. M.) “I’m really looking forward to the B Minor mass. It’s a work I know very well from my Trinity days (as mentioned before), and any chance to perform it – especially with the AAM – is special.”
(J. P.) “I think the thing I was most looking forward to has actually already happened! I absolutely love the solo part in the Haydn Creation and singing that with the orchestra at the Milton Abbey International Music Festival this last summer was one of the highlights of my career, particularly the sense of humour which they brought to some of the more comic aspects to the work.”
During this Messiah performance you will be singing the chorus parts and doing step-out solos; what are the challenges involved, how do your years of training help you, and what specifically have you had to practice for this concert?
(C. M.) “There are obvious vocal technicalities to consider between our normal acapella repertoire, singing in the chorus and solo roles. But in my opinion the biggest change is the channel of expression. In our acapella work we are often trying to blend and contribute to a single group “voice” that speaks as something larger than the sum of its parts. When singing a solo, the burden is solely on you to create a voice of equal magnitude. It’s all too easy to charge headlong at it and sing everything very loud for fear of not being heard. This obviously does not serve the music particularly well and indeed is completely unnecessary with the sensitive accompaniment of the AAM! I try to think about singing the text in a way that draws the audience in to me, and to find the nuance within the overarching sentiment of a phrase.”
(J. P.) “The sheer number of concerts we undertake in a season gives us a vocal stamina that is incredibly helpful when undertaking a project of this kind. There is also a huge element of teamwork involved. We have a wonderful collection of singers in the Foundation, and that means that in some of the larger choruses we can slightly lean on our colleagues so that we don’t sing ourselves out before the set-piece aria. It’s a huge team effort and we really couldn’t do it without each and every one of them.”
This performance of Messiah will be broadcast on Facebook and YouTube. What impact do you think social media is having on classical music?
(B. S.) “In my view, any platform that allows us to share classical music as widely as possible is a great thing. The fact that we can enthuse a world-wide audience with a performance in Cambridge, means that music has more power than it has ever had before to reach out and capture people; that can only be a good thing. That being said, we do face some challenges in the industry with implementing this technology, because it becomes very easy to under-value the work of musicians; sharing music so widely for so little, can mean that the audience comes to a mindset that music should be free. That being said, I think that is a challenge for the industry more than the audience.”
(J. P.) “Social media is giving classical music a (to coin a phrase) ‘renaissance’ in the popular psyche. It’s been wonderful to see people who might not have naturally chosen to listen to a piece of choral music discover the depth and breadth of human emotion that is captured therein. We often hear stories of people who have come to know of VOCES8 through our video content, who would never have heard of us otherwise, and for whom some of our recordings might have helped navigate through a tough time in their lives. That’s really rewarding.”
VOCES8 has its own Foundation and focuses a lot of energy in developing a younger audience; Messiah is hugely popular, and often draws people to a classical concert who might otherwise not go. How can we use this as an opportunity, and does Messiah have an important role in developing an audience for the future?
(B. S.) “Plenty is being written about the power of music both for the development of young people, and for the good of society. Still, it seems that we don’t always find time or resources to support the creative arts in a world that is driven by logic, numbers, screens and instant gratification. The VOCES8 Foundation exists to shout as loudly as we can about the importance of music and the wider creative arts in the curriculum, and encouraging us all to use our voices. We know how powerful music can be both as a participative pursuit and as an art-form for society to consume; Messiah has a way of speaking to all of us on some level, and It is my mission, and that of our foundation, to continue Handel’s work in using it to have a positive impact. It draws people through the door, so let’s grasp the opportunity to show this audience the power of live music, and let’s create projects and opportunities for our students to be involved too. I’m delighted that we are involved in Cambridge Early Music’s ‘Roots’ project here in Cambridge; maybe next year we can build something for our school’s around Messiah too; we can only do so with your support.”
(C. M.) “Many people will know, to pick an obvious example, the Hallelujah Chorus in isolation as a popular classical piece. When they come to a Messiah performance, they will hear it in context within the full work, where it takes on an even brighter, joyful significance. I hope that experience can remind people, of any age, of music’s capacity to tell a story, as something to be actively listened to as opposed to just something to be put on in the background. You can’t expect to change the world overnight, but if our performance starts one person’s journey of discovery through classical music, we have done a good job.”
(J. P.) “The thing about Messiah that keeps it relevant is not just that the music is fantastic, it’s that the story is so human. So many people can recite the biblical narrative of Christ’s life and passion, but it’s very rare that it’s put forward in such a compelling and timeless way as it is in this piece. The way that Handel sets the text also elevates the story into a real drama. From the very first chords of the overture, which immediately set the hairs raising, to the final glorious fanfare in ‘The Trumpet shall sound’ announcing mankind’s redemption through the resurrection, we are taken on a journey in our seats, and that’s what makes this piece so relatable for audiences of all stripes.”
As told to Kemper Edwards (28/11/19)
Barnaby Smith VOCES8 Artistic Director
© Kaupo Kikkas
Christopher Moore baritone
© Kaupo Kikkas
Jonathan Pacey bass
© Kaupo Kikkas