Billed as an intimate semi-immersive theatrical style concert, this performance of the latter two parts of Handel’s famous Messiah was deliberately designed to appeal to a non concert-going audience. The set and lighting design was suitably sumptuous for the plush velvet-curtained Porchester Hall, and the quality of the sound produced by the young musicians filling the stage was superlative. But in attracting and keeping a new audience, this production really missed the mark. Here’s why.
Those behind this concept seem certain that the biggest thing turning people off to classical music is not knowing what’s going on in the story. Nicholas Little worked hard switching between conductor and compere, leading us by the hand of every single part of the story. Two actors read the words of each section out, then Little interpreted the action, then finally we were allowed to hear them. This made the performance painfully long, heavily interrupted and ultimately very repetitive. Frustratingly, it’s also something that the traditional concert format has an answer for – the programme note!
There is definitely potential in reinvigorating the way programme notes are constructed and conveyed, but interrupting the music is not the answer, especially not to this extent. Less is definitely more, especially when the choir annunciated the English text so beautifully, making the actors’ interventions superfluous. There were more than ten minutes between the opening of “Behold the lamb of God” and any further music. We finally reached the (25-minute!) interval a full 95 minutes later.
I firmly believe that the formal settings, high ticket prices and sheer length of the pieces are much more off-putting than any lack of understanding the story. This performance did address the first point through the clothing of the musicians (jeans and a white top), which ultimately felt at odds with the highly formal setting of the hall and, slightly disconcertingly, its many suited security personnel.
At £30 a ticket, this is not accessibly-priced, but that can be forgiven – all those musicians need paying! What’s less forgivable is the heavy-handed attempts to encourage you to spend more money. This was not just evident in the excessively long interval and the plea for you to try all three signature cocktails just before that interval, but in the scheduled start and finish times. The event starts at 6.30, we’re told, with last entry at 7.30pm for a concert that starts at 8. Beyond a few exhibits placed without explanation around the bar area, there was no other reason for this additional time other than to encourage you to part with more cash.
I really wanted this concept to work – I love this music, and could see the potential for reaching a wider audience in a more relaxed and informal setting. This production was not it. And it was definitely not a relaxing evening for those of us in the audience worried about catching our last trains back to South London.