Do we know how many angels can dance on the point of a needle? Do we know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall?
Too metaphysical? Too surreal? Too qantum to quantify? Probably.
But if we were to ask what will pack 535 unmistakably corporeal beings into the northern galleries of the Sydney Town Hall – that’s the end with the organ in it – the answer is unambiguous.
It’s to take the role of heavenly angels and sing the world’s greatest, grandest, best-loved oratorio, Messiah, by that busy baroque composer George Frideric Handel (1685–1759).
On Sunday 18 November Sydney comes together to sing Messiah in Sydney Town Hall under the baton of Christopher Bowen OAM, musical director of Sydney University Graduate Choir. Joining in are hundreds of additional choristers who have signed up for this year’s event, Sydney Sings Messiah.
Just what is it about Handel’s Messiah that still attracts choristers both amateur and professional, in their hundreds (and sometimes even thousands), to perform this piece that premiered in Dublin on 13 April 1742?
What is it that fills church halls, concert halls and town halls with audiences still eager to hear that “the Lord God omnipotent reigneth”, in this not-notably-devout 21st century of ours?
If you were to count the number of them staged in Sydney annually, big and small, at any time of year but clustering around Easter and particularly in the lead up to Christmas, Handel’s Messiah would have to be the most frequently performed work of the entire classical repertoire.
Countless program notes, essays, theses and books have been written about the appeal of this timeless work that’s a two to three-hour meditation on life and death, belief and sacrifice. (The length depends on which version the conductor follows or what choruses and arias they omit!)
There’s no plot, nor do any characters speak directly to us. It’s a series of Biblical passages selected by librettist Charles Jennens, words of a direct simplicity that makes it accessible to people of all faiths – or none.
It’s set, of course, to an unbelievably virtuosic score by Handel, who we’re told completed it in just a fortnight.
It ranges from the hauntingly melodious pastoral symphony to that amazing gothic evocation of space as the angels of God, having brought the good news to the shepherds, flutter orchestrally offstage at the end of the chorus ‘Glory to God’.
For the choirs singing it there are a variety of roles to assume. Not long after being heavenly hosts of angels, they embrace the supreme silliness of baroquely bleating sheep who have been led astray. Later they become snarling crowds jeering at the Messiah.
For audiences, Messiah provides one of classical music’s very few interactive moments as they leap to their feet when, after a good hour and a half of arias and choruses, the opening bars of the famous ‘Hallelujah’ chorus finally sound.
For many, however, the best comes last, after the pure gold of the last trumpet heralding an upbeat salvation. ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ the choristers sing, and then the long ‘Amen’ fugue leads to a crashing chord that some non-believing singers declare is the closest they’ll ever come to a holy epiphany.
It’s been bringing singers and audiences back for 270 years, and on Sunday 18th November, with the generous support of the City of Sydney and Westfield Sydney, Sydney Sings Messiah is returning to the Town Hall for 2012.