There's a sign on the wall outside the main door of Dorchester Abbey reading: 'Worship has been offered on this site to God for over 1300 years'. So entrenched is Handel's Messiah in the cultural life of Britain at this time of year that had it read 'The Messiah' for 'Worship', it might not have seemed wholly incredible. The warhorse is in its 277th year, though originally intended for Passion Week rather than Advent. So how is The Orchestra of St John's, its Messiah an annual calendar fixture, to present it coming up all new-minted and shiny every time? Perhaps in three ways: first, the average age of the choir strikes me as being younger than that of your average amateur choir, secondly conductor John Lubbock is a whirlwind of energy on and off the podium, a general leading from the front, and thirdly he has a razor-sharp knack for unearthing quality young soloists.
It's a feature of the work that the parts for tenor and bass fall widely spaced. Thus, having got us off to a ringing start with volume to spare in his 'Comfort ye' recitative and 'Every valley shall be exalted' air, tenor Xavier Hetherington was then silent until Part II. Mezzo Charlotte Tetley's upper range was fine, but I thought she struggled slightly down in the low notes where her audibility suffered a little. The work's lower register tends to pose problems for any mezzo that are more comfortably dealt with by a counter tenor, though Mr Lubbock told me in the interval that he likes a female voice for the rôle.
It was gratifying that the choir's soprano section was so strong given that it has to hold up the melody passim. The entire choir pronounced the idea of hope and belief over tragedy and perfidy that permeates the score despite the emphasis on betrayal in Part II. Thus its 'And the glory of the Lord' and later 'Surely He hath borne our griefs' poured out from chancel to nave in a blaze of optimism. John Lubbock conducted without a baton but with emphatic, even flamboyant gestures; a human dynamo stretching out expansively, as it were a shepherd for the 'All we like sheep'. Earlier he thrust both arms skyward on 'Arise, shine', a latter-day Moses standing on the banks of the Red Sea and commanding its waters to part. Such energy and belief cannot fail to inspire the musicians around him.
Of the remaining soloists, soprano Louise Hayman was effective, producing little florid, operatic touches in her 'Come unto Him, all ye that labour' and then poignant in her 'I know that my Redeemer liveth', the very kernel of the Christian message. Bass Tom Mole was a replacement for this performance, and how he seized the opportunity to shine in musical company of this quality. Adopting a dramatic attitude, gazing fiercely round the nave, he got up a strong yet disciplined head of steam, enunciating Jennens' lyrics with care. This is a young bass to watch.