Messiah/Ayr Choral Union

When awards are made for the contributions to the beleaguered worlds of music and the arts during the health crisis, the name of baritone Andrew McTaggart should be one of the first on the list.

As a singer he was one of the first musicians back out on the road as part of the small team that took Scottish Opera’s Pop-Up versions of three very different shows to outdoor venues across the country when the weather still made such an exercise an optimistic possibility. And as a choir director he has kept the enthusiastic amateur voices of Ayr Choral Union exercised at a time when meeting together in a room has been impossible.

That project and purpose continues, but on Sunday the choir, four young soloists and a fine compact chamber ensemble came together online to perform Handel’s best-known oratorio in a manner that set its own template.

There are many ways to make a Messiah, from the small professional group giving a meticulous historically-informed performance through to Come & Sing versions for massed untrained voices. McTaggart conducted one that used the technology everyone is learning to embrace, YouTube and the Zoom platform, to combine elements of both in a communal experience.

His soloists – soprano Catriona Hewitson, contralto Penelope Cousland, tenor Ted Black and bass Colin Murray – had been leading sectional training online to supplement McTaggart’s own coaching of the choir in a time of social distancing, and for Sunday’s culminating performance they were also the onscreen, one-voice-to-a-part chorus, self-shot from where ever they happened to have been living at the time. The solo recitatives and arias, however, had been filmed in one session, in the same space as the socially-distanced twelve-piece ensemble, with McTaggart conducting.

The elements had been assembled for a full performance in which the sound quality was quite remarkable, and the pictures were more than just the icing on the cake because McTaggart was directing not only the people visible on screen, but also his 100 or more choristers singing along at home.

It was a compact version of the score, clocking in at well under two hours, but all the essential elements were there and the playing of the instrumentalists (with some well-known faces from Scottish music) and the performances of the young soloists were top class. Black and Cousland added some fine ornamentation, while Hewitson and Murray tended more towards playing with a pure-toned straight bat, while all four combined on Part Two’s sequence of choruses and then the Hallelujah in a way that suggested some very skilful sound engineering.

In some parts of Ayrshire it was perhaps possible to wander down the street and hear their voices leading members of the Choral Union who were joining in lustily in front of their own laptops and televisions. In the charitable tradition of the work, as the choir’s current President Kate Wilson pointed out, all donations supporting the performance are going to Help Musicians UK, which has plenty need to meet at the present time. McTaggart and Ayr Choral Union did Handel proud.
Keith Bruce

Image: Andrew McTaggart ©Julie Howden