For many of you, a report on our Messiah in University Church on December 16th will not be news, because you were there. However, I can’t embark on news about our 2018 activities without first describing something of this day from an IT&T perspective.
Since our very first concert in the Holywell Music Room back in September 2014, when I found myself still in the box office in my lucent blue get up while the rest of the orchestra was already on stage, I have found wearing the two hats of Management and Player a difficult juggling act (a bit like that mixed metaphor). As a player of more than 20 years in the Academy of Ancient Music I am as casual as the next person about getting back to my seat after a 17 minute (not the prescribed 15 minute) coffee break and no longer suffer heart palpitations as I sit in gridlock on the M40 less than an hour before the start of a rehearsal in Waterloo. Not so at IT&T! I find myself morphing into a Miss Trunchbull-style character at the slightest sign of a laissez-faire attitude or a concert dress of the wrong hue. It’s not a side of myself I like, yet the conflict in roles has my head spinning and I seem unable to resolve this ongoing identity crisis while continuing to ‘work’ and ‘play’. I therefore decided that since I was unable to undertake the Spanish trips because of family commitments, I would step down from participating in the concert and concentrate my energies on rolling out the day like a seamless red carpet for musicians and audience alike.
In the event, that decision proved more stressful than anticipated and the carpet was decidedly rucked in places (not least when we discovered in November, that a carol service had been scheduled in University Church during our one and only rehearsal!). I discovered that one definite advantage to playing in the concert is that it effectively removes you from the melee at the door. It’s a weird experience, as an adult, suddenly finding yourself in an unfamiliar role, but one you have observed many times and thought simple, only to discover not only is it more difficult than it looked, but also that you’re not very good at it: faced with an advancing mass of audience members I couldn’t work out how to get the Returns list to work; I couldn’t remember what the person I had just sold a ticket for looked like; I couldn’t find space for everyone because despite having shuffled along the pews several times in order to work out seating capacity, people don’t come in a standard size, especially when it’s cold and their coat has come too.
The worst of it was the concert. I had never heard the Messiah before except from within an orchestra and I was looking forward to the passive luxury of being a punter. But from the second it started my ear was glued to the bassline, experiencing all the niggles of the technical aspects of playing the part with none of the highs of performing. It wasn’t that I felt critical of the performance, more of Handel. Perhaps not the fully-fledged audience version of Miss Trunchbull, but a backseat driver nonetheless. I adjourned to the Old Library in order to escape myself.
About two hours twenty minutes later I stood in the doorway to hear the Dona Nobis Pacem and the Amen. At the end of a long work, the final page always brings a sense of release - you can stop worrying how sore you’re bottom is from sitting on the edge of a bass stool for two and a half hours, soon you will no longer be shivering/sweating (it is so rare to be the right temperature in a concert) and there is a long, thirst-quenching alcoholic drink awaiting you. But without all the physical discomforts of performing, in that last five minutes there was just that sense of transcendence that Handel both intended, musically and emotionally and in which he had faith and which was greeted by a standing ovation. A standing ovation is a very moving thing: a rare demonstration of unanimity in modern life and a collective, wordless expression of something inexpressible. A fitting response to Handel’s music.
Last year, IT&T’s Messiah was the first ever concert to sell out in University Church. This year, the audience’s response has had repercusions for health and safety and may prompt the introduction of a numbering system in the church (hurray! I won’t be dragging chairs into the front row at 5.02pm). Not only this, but the concert sold out two weeks sooner than last year and we have already had booking enquiries for next year.
This phenomenon that is the Messiah happens annually and is universal. It reminds me of that tv advert I used to see urging us that ‘A dog is for life, not just for Christmas’ - I want to say that about music. People will tell me openly they don’t like classical music, but will religiously sit through two and a half hours of the Messiah without ever considering coming to another concert; like the audiences in Kenwood stoically enduring an open-air concert in the pouring rain, but who wouldn’t dream of coming into a concert hall. It must be the same for vicars at Christmas.
But the two IT&T tours to Spain have inspired us to undertake something more inclusive in 2018. We will, of course, maintain our annual performance in University Church (December 22nd at 5pm, booking opens Sept 1st), but in addition we are planning a ‘Community Messiah’ earlier in December in the Sheldonian to which we will invite the choirs with whom we collaborate, to sing alongside Oxford Voices in the ‘big’ choruses and include players from Oxybaroxy (the Oxford County Music Service’s baroque youth orchestra) alongside IT&T. It is one of the great roles we at IT&T are privileged to occupy in Oxford - that of uniting diverse elements from within the city and university and establishing something truly communal. If you sing in a choir and would like to share the discomforts of performing a piece that lasts two and a half hours, on a hard seat, please get in touch! You will undoubtedly also get to experience the thrill of being part of a large-scale musical enterprise, which is unforgettable.
IT&T’s 2018 Season has expanded considerably since we went to print in September, so please keep an eye on email updates or check the concerts page on our website. This Friday, January 12th at 8pm in New College Chapel, Chris Bucknall, Director of Music at St Edmund Hall and Associate Director of IT&T, will direct a side-by-side concert with the Bate Players and members of IT&T. Programme and booking information is available on our website. This collaboration promises to be an enriching experience for all parties, where the freshness and enthusiasm of the Bate Players meets the experience and deeply crafted approach of IT&T.
This is followed by the next instalment of Natalie Clein’s ‘Bach Project’ presented through the University Music Faculty with booking via Ticketsoxford. The concert, in the Holywell Music Room , on Saturday January 27th is an exciting collaboration between ancient and modern, with IT&T accompanying ‘modern’ soloists Alexander Janiczek and James Boyd, alongside our own Daniel Edgar. The concert is preceded by a discussion led by distinguished Bach scholar, John Butt.
February sees Matthew Martin’s second annual Keble Early Music Festival. As last year, this features IT&T in two concerts: the first, on Thursday February 22nd, an intimate Abendmusik directed by Edward Higginbottom with a programme for soprano and small ensemble; the second a much larger scale concert, featuring two of Mozart’s greatest compositions - his Requiem and Jupiter Symphony - the former conducted by Matthew Martin and the latter, by Edward Higginbottom. I’m particularly looking forward to this, because it will be fascinating to work with two such profound musicians, one trained by the other, who nonetheless have very different conducting styles. There can’t be many cities in the world with this concentration of musical excellence.
Earlier in February, on Saturday 3rd, the Summertown Choral Society and IT&T will appear in the first of two collaborative concerts this year. This concert in St Andrew’s, Linton Rd features Handel’s wonderful ‘Israel in Egypt’ - perhaps the most dramatic of Handel’s oratorios and definitely my favourite.
March, of course, brings with it Passion season and Aliye will shortly be in touch with a booking invitation for Friends to IT&T’s St John Passion with New College Choir, conducted by Robert Quinney on Sunday March 11th. To avoid last year’s confusion, please note the start time is definitely 3pm!
We very much hope to see you at some or all of these varied concerts. It is nice to feel that, as an orchestra, we are starting to get to know our audience.
Judith Evans, Concerts Manager.