On Easter Sunday, Handel’s iconic composition, The Messiah, will be performed at the Anglican Pro-Cathedral in Valletta. With just a few weeks to go, conductor MICHAEL LAUS talks about this much-loved piece, as well as about the importance of art and research coming together.
Composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel, The Messiah is one of the best-known and most popular choral works in the Western world. With its scriptural text derived from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, the piece has become an icon in its own right, with the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus now one of the most recognisable pieces of music in history.
On Easter Sunday, which this year falls on 16 April, the Goldberg Ensemble, will be performing the piece as Handel originally composed it: for single strings and a small group of singers and four soloists soprano Gillian Zammit, mezzo-soprano Clare Massa, tenor Edward Camilleri and bass Albert Buttigieg.
Directing the Goldberg Ensemble and the singers, will be one of Malta’s most accomplished conductors, the Resident Conductor of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the founder of the Malta Youth Orchestra and the Goldberg Ensemble, Michael Laus.
Here, Mro Laus reveals his thoughts about the concert, which aims to raise much needed funds for medical research.
Handel’s Messiah is one of the most famous classical pieces in history. What makes this composition so special?
First of all, there is the subject matter. The libretto of The Messiah is mostly taken from the Bible, and it covers a good part of the story of the redemption: from the prophecies of Isaiah through to Jesus’s birth, passion and resurrection. The four soloists do not represent particular characters, which would be usual in an oratorio, but share, together with the choir, the narration of the text in an evenly-balanced manner. Although, it has to be said that the choir has the lion’s share! Then, there is also the sheer beauty of the music. Handel’s The Messiah contains many audience favourites, such as ‘Every valley is exalted,’ ‘For unto us a Child is born,’ ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ and, of course, the incomparable ‘Hallelujah’ chorus.
As a director, what is the hardest part of performing this piece?
Preparing the choir. Apart from the large number of choral pieces that The Messiah contains, there is the question of the complexity of the choral writing, which is frequently contrapuntal (i.e. the four sections of the choir sing parts that are independent of each other). There is also the question of having enough stamina to perform the oratorio, which runs up to almost two hours of music!
Many times, when Handel’s Messiah is performed new bits are added for a variety of instruments. The one you’ll be directing will be done the way the composer originally composed it: for single strings and a small group of singers. Why did you decide to do this?
There is really no single way in which The Messiah should be performed. Handel himself directed several performances of the work in England and Ireland, and used ensembles and choirs of different sizes. He was content working with small ensembles, although he was also happy with larger choirs. The Goldberg Ensemble is a chamber ensemble, and this gives a particular colour to the work which larger ensembles do not have. This is the third time that we shall be performing The Messiah together, so we already ‘know’ it, so to speak. Nevertheless, I still work intensively with the choir on articulation and the baroque style.
The concert on Easter Sunday will be in aid of RIDT, with the funds going to medical research. Why is it important for the arts to support research?
I strongly believe that musicians should work to support research, as well as charitable institutions. Some ground-breaking research is being carried out at the University of Malta as we speak, such as research on cancer and diabetes. Support for funding this research is being organised by the Research, Innovation & Development Trust (RIDT) within the said University, and the members of the Goldberg Ensemble and I are very happy to be supporting this institution!
Handel’s The Messiah will take place on Sunday 16 April at the Anglican Pro-Cathedral in Valletta. Tickets for the performance, which cost €25, can be obtained from the Teatru Manoel booking office, online from http://booking.teatrumanoel.com.mt, or by calling on 7941 2139.