Christmas, Limelight

Handel’s Messiah is incredibly popular – what do you think has people coming back year after year (and sometimes several times a year)?

It’s one of the greatest choral works of all time. Messiah is an incredible balance of drama and music. Probably the most famous story of our time is told through beautiful music shared between four soloists and a choir, all supported and enhanced by the orchestra. There is something new to discover every time.

Elizabeth Scott, MessiahConductor Elizabeth Scott. Photo © Roland Kay-Smith

When and where did you first hear the work?

I actually avoided Messiah, (not intentionally!) for a long time – I started my musical career as a flute player and there are no flutes in Messiah, so I must confess it was not really on my radar. I learnt many of the soprano arias as a singer whilst studying overseas, but my first real experience of the work was after moving back to Australia – chorus mastering Sydney Philharmonia’s Symphony Chorus in 2005 for Richard Gill’s performances of Messiah in December of that year.

Do you have any favourite recordings or interpretations?

I have really been enjoying Stephen Layton’s recording with Polyphony – it’s really fresh and vibrant. I also love Trevor Pinnock’s recording with The English Consort and Choir. There are many recordings – it’s is so fascinating to look at the different tempi, different arias and different musical forces.

What are the technical or musical challenges of conducting a work like this? How can you prepare for them?

It’s such a huge work from so many angles. Messiah is a good two and a half hours of music with 54 movements, and I have to wrangle over 650 choristers and 40 orchestral players to all work together! The pacing of the work is so important and I’ll only get one rehearsal with everybody to actually run it in its entirety, so I’m a bit nervous about that aspect. I know the chorus movements so well as I have rehearsed them countless times, but the solo arias will really only take shape once I work with our incredible solo team, which happens the week of the performances.

How do I prepare? – score study, score study, score study, reading books about Messiah, listening to a variety of recordings, talking to conductors and musicians who have performed Messiah multiple times. There are not enough hours in the day…

Messiah is so familiar to many people – does that make interpretive decisions more or less challenging?

Everyone, from professional musician to amateur chorister to audience member has an opinion on how Messiah should go. Whatever decisions I make there will be people who like them and people who don’t. I will just do my best to make informed decisions that I believe in. There are so many different versions, different styles, different interpretations around, and Handel himself wrote many different versions of the same movement to suit the forces at hand for any given performance, so in a way there is no right or wrong.

For you, what are the most exciting or powerful moments in the work?

There are some incredible moments of sheer joy and excitement in the work that I find very inspiring – for example the chorus For unto us a child is born and the soprano aria Rejoice. The minimal use of the trumpets and timpani make their entrances very exciting and powerful. For me the most powerful moments are the intimate ones – especially in a version where we have so many performers. How Beautiful are the Feet which is just solo soprano, solo violin and continuo is very moving. And the few a cappella choral moments are also really magical.

Do you have a take on the audience standing for the Hallelujah Chorus?

There is much speculation about why King George II supposedly stood at the first London performance – whether he stood because he was so impressed with it, or because he wanted to leave or just needed to stretch! Messiah is a long work – I think the audience standing in Messiah revitalizes everyone and gives the audience a sense of participation. The Hallelujah Chorus is a fantastically uplifting piece – I think most people stand because they just can’t be passive during it!

Elizabeth Scott, MessiahElizabeth Scott. Photo © Roland Kay-Smith

I understand this will be your first Messiah on the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall stage – how significant a career milestone is that for you?

It is a huge milestone for me and an incredible honour to have been entrusted with this incredible work. I am lucky enough to have conducted countless times on the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall platform, but never something of this magnitude with a professional orchestra.

I should mention that I conducted the 2,700 voice choir for the Schools Spectacular last week, so the 650 voice choir for Messiah seems almost chamber-like!

What do you hope the audience will come away with?

A fresh and joyous musical experience that inspires people to want to join in with music making in whatever way they can. Live performance is so important in our digital isolated world – and singing is something that brings people from all walks of life together. This Messiah brings together talented amateur choristers from all generations with a highly experienced team of professional musicians and four-world class soloists.

Elizabeth Scott conducts Handel’s Messiah with Sydney Philharmonia Choirs at the Sydney Opera House December 14 – 16.