The People’s Messiah

(Albert Street Uniting Church)


It’s against all the rules of reviewing for a critic to write a notice on a performance in which he himself participated. But this is different. The Albert Street Uniting Church’s annual pre-Christmas Messiah sing-along is an event in which participants double as audience. (The few strays spotted in the upstairs gallery are either street people who’ve crept in for a nap, very devoted kith and kin of the singers, or masochists.)

It works like this: you pay $5, they give you a score, they show you into the grand old church where the vast nave is divided into four quadrants labelled soprano, alto, tenor and bass, you sit wherever you feel comfortable, and then you sing. It’s that easy.

This was the tenth year of this wonderful baroque sing-along, and there is no more sign of abatement in the enthusiasm of the participants (there were more than 200 of us) than there is of improvement in the musical quality of the chorus. But we’re there for the fun of participation, not for a technically perfect, fully rehearsed production.

Indeed, the evening does involve a rehearsal of sorts. At 5pm, maestro Jason Barry-Smith takes the rostrum to lead his charges through their paces in preparation for the 7pm performance. If anything is an aesthetic challenge to a professional choir leader and Opera Queensland principal, this must be it. But Barry-Smith, whose pleasant nature and affability are legendary, shows not a wince nor a frown. No stern looks, no barely veiled disgust, no eyes rolled heavenwards, no grimaces or disappointed wan smiles. For his motley crew of once-a-year Messiahists give him every reason to do all of the above, if not to storm out of the famous church in a state of apoplexy and “never-again” rage. Instead there is enthusiasm, affirmation and jocularity. He is truly a saint, if modern-day saints are recognised in the Uniting Church.

The performance concentrates on the Christmas half of Messiah plus the ending bits, involving nine choruses “And the glory of the Lord”, “O thou that tellest good tidings”, “For unto us a child is born”, “Glory to God”, “All we like sheep”, “Lift up your heads”, “Hallelujah” (of course), “Worthy is the Lamb” and “Amen”.

The choristers include very experienced Messiahists as well as tyros, with quite varying levels of ability in following the line or the beat. This for the most part doesn’t matter, for as Sir Thomas Beecham once famously said, the only important thing is that everyone starts together and finishes together (“the public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between”) which Barry-Smith was well able to ensure through his firm control at the rostrum. There were occasions where enthusiastic individuals jumped the gun, lustily singing out a beat or so ahead of Handel’s and Barry-Smith’s intentions. This caused embarrassment if you were standing next to such a person or even worse if you were such a person, but no names were taken nor singers shown the door, and Handel’s music is very good at “moving right along”.

But overall the choral sound wasn’t at all bad, with lots of great belting and a totality of sound which, though admittedly ragged, was certainly joyous and sung with conviction. As a spiritual experience, it is certainly the best way possible of experiencing Messiah.

No public performance can be without its bit of drama behind the scenes, and here’s what happened in this case: there was a popular revolt over “All we like sheep”. Although listed on the printed program, it was to be dropped, Barry-Smith dolefully announced at the rehearsal (stage-whispering that it wasn’t his decision). The chorus behaved most unlike sheep who had gone astray, expressing their unhappiness at this omission with a mixture of murmurs and rumbling noises (although no noticeable baa-ing). All right all right, conceded Barry-Smith, we’ll rehearse it, but only after you’ve done all the other pieces. So rehearse it we did, just before the tea break, and with such gusto that the organisers could do nothing other than re-insert Chorus no. 26 into the program, just before the tenor recitative, “Thy rebuke”.

The bonus of these occasions for the chorus/audience is that there’s a line-up of professional soloists to sing some of the great airs which are so integral to Handel’s Messiah. This time the performers were soprano Mirusia Louwerse, counter-tenor David Muller, tenor John Peek, bass Michael Strasser, together with trumpeter Lindon Weise for the thrilling “Trumpet shall sound” bass air, and church organist Gregory Hartay-Szabo.

They did a great job not quite as consistently as in some previous years, but taken as a group they performed well. (Some of the singers were coralled fairly late into the performance.) In an interesting approach the contralto part was given to a counter-tenor: David Muller sang well in this role, although I do prefer the richness of the traditional contralto voice for the Messiah airs.

Hit singer of the night was 20-year-old soprano Mirusia Louwerse, who charmed us all with her recitatives and airs such as “Come unto Him” and “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, with excellent intonation and purity of sound.

Long-serving Albert Street organist John Stehbens, who died four months ago, inaugurated the People’s Messiah in 1996 and played for most performances. His widow Anita, a talented soprano, bravely joined this year’s performance. John would be proud that the wonderful tradition he founded lives on, and let’s hope that the People’s Messiah will remain part of Brisbane’s Christmas music scene for many more decades to come.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Sat 10th December 2005)