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Handel's Messiah: keeping a family tradition going

The performance of Handel’s Messiah has become a 30-year tradition at the Basilica of St. John the Baptist.
The performance of Handel’s Messiah has become a 30-year tradition at the Basilica of St. John the Baptist. - Contributed

The Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra (NSO) and the Philharmonic Choir of the NSO drew hundreds to the Basilica of St. John the Baptist on Friday for opening night of the annual Handel’s Messiah performance.

With just over three decades of holiday shows, the Messiah has become a tradition for many families, including my own.

My grandparents have attended every Messiah in its past 30+ years. This year marks the first holiday season that they have not been able to attend the performance – at nearly 93 years old, my grandfather can’t hear the music the way he once did.

Sitting in the magnificent Basilica, it felt as though they were with me for my inaugural Messiah experience, conducted by Stephen Candow – his inaugural Messiah in that role.

From the opening notes, it was obvious that the orchestra had been practicing for this performance for longer than Handel spent writing the Messiah – just 24 days.

Though unable to physically see the orchestra, the music was entrancing in a different way. Instead of getting lost in the subtle and swift movements of the talented musicians, I was lost in the music itself, staring blankly toward the dimly lit altar.

There was a bit of action to watch, however. A screen behind the choir projected video of the highlighted vocalists, as they took turns performing arias; solo, accompagnato and with the chorus.

The impressive vocal talents of the Philharmonic Choir and soloists Suzie LeBlanc (soprano), Aleks Romano (mezzo-soprano), E. Mark Murphy (tenor) and Joel Allison (baritone) dazzled the crowd throughout the show.

The vocal projection seemed to reverberate through every inch of the opulent building.

At times, the beautiful singing dominated the dramatic music, the realization that this music was being created live, in-house hitting in waves.

Originally scored for pairs of trumpets, oboes, violins, a viola, a cello, a double bass, timpani and a harpsichord, the orchestra featured many more instruments and players – a common occurrence in performances of Handel’s Messiah worldwide.

The ever-present harpsichord, a staple of the Baroque era, was especially intriguing, since the instrument has not been a central component of recent NSO shows, like the Masterworks Series 1 and 2.

Feeling thrust into the holiday season, thanks to a recent Christmas play and the freshly fallen snow, the Messiah felt a little off-base. Reading along with the accompanying Scriptual anthology, Handel’s Messiah tells a story much more suited to a different holiday – the piece is based on the traditional Easter story, yet is often performed at Christmastime.

As the grand room resounded with hallelujahs and amens, there was a certain magic in the air – like a spell had been cast on an unsuspecting audience.

Stretching out the stiffness from the hard pews, we shook off the all-encompassing enchantment of the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonic Choir of the NSO, heading out into a calm snowy night.

“We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”

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