The Chichester Singers launch festive season with Handel's Messiah

Conductor Jonathan Willcocks
Conductor Jonathan Willcocks

The Chichester Singers take us into the festive season with a performance of Handel’s Messiah in Chichester Cathedral on Saturday, December 8.

It will be the 11th time they have performed it under their long-serving musical director Jonathan Willcocks. The point is that the piece is genuinely unique.

As Jonathan says, he can think of no other piece which has enjoyed such consistent, undimmed popularity for so long. Some pieces popular now have gone out of fashion at times, but not Handel’s Messiah. And that brings its own challenges in a way.

“Audiences tend to know it extremely well. It is like performing Shakespeare! Audiences start with a great natural familiarity with it, and you have to make sure that you are at your very, very best.

“It is such a great work, a mixture of wonderful music for all three elements. The choir, the soloists, the orchestra all have wonderful music to play. But it is also the fact that it is relevant throughout the whole year. There is Christmas music, there is Passion music, and there is hope for the Resurrection. It is totally unique.

“It has retained its popularity non-stop and it can be performed in so many different ways from the gigantic performances with 5,000 singers to the modern-day one-part per person performances. It is the work that I have conduced most with the Chichester Singers over the 40 years I have been with them.”

Its richness is that inevitably you always discover something new: “Each time you revisit it, you discover things. The choir will tell me ‘Last time you did it, you did this differently.’ It is really important to keep looking at it. Each time you refine it. I don’t go out of my way to do things differently for the sake of being different, but you do find different emphases, different aspects, and I think that is one of the reasons it has endured.”

Jonathan first conducted it professionally with the Portsmouth Choral Union in 1975. With the Chichester Singers, he has tended to do it every three to four years: “One of the marvellous things about the choir is that they have the faith in me to programme repertoire which combines the great masterpieces contrasting with a real commitment to music by living composers. I am extremely grateful that the choir has that trust in me.

“Most singers will think they know the piece, but technically it is very difficult. It has got a lot of running semi-quavers, and it is quite a difficult work to sing well.”

The cathedral has a lovely resonance, but as Jonathan says, the challenge becomes to retain clarity.

The performance comes at the end of an excellent year for the Chichester Singers and during a season which typifies their commitment to the masterworks and to the newer pieces. Their most recent concert combined Brahms’ Requiem with a piece by Ronald Corp.

And on March 30, following on from Brahms’ Requiem and Handel’s Messiah, they will perform J S Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Then on June 22, for the Festival of Chichester, to mark the 60 anniversary of the twinning of Chartres with Chichester, they will offer a programme of French and English music.

All the while, there is natural renewal, Jonathan says. For The Messiah, there will be a number of members of the Chichester Singers who were members already when Jonathan took over more than 40 years ago; but there will also be seven or eight members who have never sung Messiah before.

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