‘Messiah’ celebrates 25 years at the Basilica

Lillian Simmons lsimmons@cbncompass.ca
Published on December 12, 2011

Christmas is all about celebrating traditions between families, friends and community.

One long-standing event that has heralded Christmas in the hearts of many celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

The Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra (NSO) first presented George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” at the Basilica in St. John’s during Christmas 1987. That production also heralded the beginning of NSO’s Philharmonic Choir.

“Messiah has featured many, many Newfoundland-born and Newfoundland-based performers over its 25-year history,” said Heather McKinnon, NSO’s current vice-chair and member of the philharmonic choir.

This year, the star-studded list of soloists includes brothers Peter and Michael Barrett, Daniel Taylor and Wendy Nielsen.

“We have a countertenor this year, which is normally a female voice, but countertenor is being done by a male voice.”

That voice belongs to Taylor, who McKinnon said is considered the best in his craft and is the most sought-after countertenor in the world.

“Daniel’s from Montreal and he has friends in Newfoundland. He’s flying in from San Francisco the day before the performance,” said McKinnon.

“We’re thrilled to have him. He’s an international superstar and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us. There’s no doubt.”

The NSO will be joined once again by soprano Nielsen from New Brunswick. Nielsen, a Canadian opera star, performs regularly at the Metropolitan Opera.

“Not a lot of opera voices can make the transition to early music like ‘Messiah,’ but Wendy does it with ease because she performs well in both genres,” said McKinnon.

The Barrett brothers of Corner Brook will perform as soloists in this year’s production as well. They’re currently making names for themselves in the opera world.

“They are both singing opera with the Canadian Opera Company and making an opera career in the large opera houses,” McKinnon said. “Peter has just this last season been working with the Met in New York.”

‘Messiah’ junkie

Gerry Germain is past chair of the NSO. Originally from Montreal, Germain moved to Newfoundland in 1991 and attended his first NSO production of “Messiah” that year.

He’s attended every performance and many of the rehearsals since then.

“I’m a bit of a Messiah junkie,” he said.

Germain said he is excited that the production will make use of the organ at the Basilica for the first time.

“It’s a magnificent organ and we’ve never used it before,” he said.

“We’ll be doing it with an organist by the name of Stephen Candow, a Newfoundlander who was previously the organist and music director at the Anglican Cathedral in Ottawa, and he’s moved back to the island. The ‘Messiah’ is part of his oratorio. I think it’s going to be quite special.”

Germain says the Casavant organ was made in Quebec.

Dublin pub connection

NSO has discovered an unusual connection between Handel and a pub in downtown St. John’s.

“Messiah” was first performed during the winter of 1741-42, when Handel was in Dublin at the invitation of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish. Handel did two performances of the “Messiah” in April, the first to raise funds for charity and the second for himself.

Since the early ’90s, Germain and other NSO musicians have gathered at the Duke of Duckworth in downtown St. John’s to “play a little pool and have a beer” after a performance or rehearsal.

Handel’s “Messiah” was first performed at the Great Music Hall on Fishamble Street in Dublin.

“There’s a pub there owned by the father of the current owner of the Duke of Duckworth,” Germain said. “As the legend goes, Handel used to frequent that particular pub on Fishamble Street. So there is that connection with the original performance of the ‘Messiah.’”

Annual tradition

Prior to 1987 there had been other ad hoc performances of “Messiah” by various groups at other venues and times of the year in St. John’s.

“Then (NSO) artistic director Peter Gardner and Doug Dunsmore (current choral director) decided they wanted the NSO to start a production of ‘Messiah,’” McKinnon said.

“And that’s how the philharmonic choir was formed and became part of the NSO family, for the express purpose of performing the ‘Messiah.’

“They agreed to keep it going as long as people were interested in hearing it,” she added.

Obviously, interest has remained high. During past years, the NSO has had the opportunity to take the “Messiah” on the road — to Bonavista, Eastport, Grand Falls-Windsor and Corner Brook.

“The Basilica performances are on Friday and Saturday, and outreach performances

are done on Sunday afternoons,” says Ger-main. “It’s difficult to organize, but it’s a lot of fun and the choir and orchestra love to do the outreach performance.”

With about 150 people involved and a number of large instruments, transportation can get tangly.

“We need three buses, and when we went to Corner Brook we needed two aircraft. And one of the biggest problems is getting sponsors,” he said.

The NSO performance of the “Messiah” has been broadcast nationally several times, both on TV and radio.

In keeping with the 25-year tradition this year’s performances will be conducted by conducted by Douglas Dunsmore and Marc David.

“Messiah” will be performed at the Basilica at 8 p.m. on Dec. 16 and 17, presented by Cox and Palmer, this year’s principal sponsor.

Tickets are not available at the door but can be purchased online from the Arts and Culture Centre or at the Arts and Culture Centre box office.