What’s so special about Messiah ?
Ahead of our annual performances of Handel’s Messiah, we caught up with bass soloist Roland Wood to find out how he got into singing and why we just can’t get enough of Handel’s masterpiece.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into singing?
I grew up in Berkshire and got into singing when I realised, aged 14, that all the pretty girls in my school were in the choir. I immediately auditioned for the Berkshire Youth Choir and National Youth Choir and discovered it wasn’t just my school that had pretty choirgirls and I was hooked on singing from then on. My comprehensive school had an inspirational music teacher, Helen Clarke, who suggested I audition for music college and I was fortunate enough to get a place to study with Patrick McGuigan at the Royal Northern College of Music. I then spent a year at the National Opera Studio in London before starting my career as a freelancer.
Can you remember your first performance of Messiah?
My first Messiah was in December 1994 with the English Concert Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Roy Wales in Wells Cathedral. The tenor soloist was so bad he was told to sit down before ‘Thou shalt dash them’ and the trumpeter got so drunk between the rehearsal and performance he fell asleep and toppled off his stool during the Hallelujah chorus. He did, however, recover to deliver what is still the finest ‘Trumpet shall sound’ obbligato I’ve ever heard!
How is Messiah to sing? Does Handel write effectively and/or idiomatically for the voice?
Messiah is the one piece every musician performs at some point. It’s the one constant most of us will have throughout our careers so it’s difficult to be objective about something that gets hard-wired into our systems from the start of our musical education.
I’ve done performances where I’ve come off stage thinking it’s perfectly written for the voice, and performances where I’ve struggled so much I’ve been embarrassed to cash the cheque! I find the coloratura harder now than in my twenties, but the improved breath control that comes with age means I now find the longer phrases in the arias much easier. While I love singing it with Dunedin and the small forces bring a precision and clarity, I’m also a big fan of the old Malcolm Sargent/Huddersfield Choral Society version of Messiah. The augmented forces bring extra layer of drama to the narrative structure and my performances often tend to head down the same route…
What’s your favourite bit of Messiah?
I have too many to mention but among them are: the tenors’ top A in the Amen chorus (especially when the bass section join in for dramatic effect), the scrunchy suspensions in ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’, the repeat of ‘The trumpet shall sound’ – a wonderful opportunity to show off and wake up any dozing audience members – and bars 92-94 of ‘And the glory of the Lord’. That’s the moment I always started to feel Christmasy during the annual slog round the choral societies as a student.
What else have you been singing recently?
Nowadays, I spend most of my time singing nineteenth century Italian opera, particularly Verdi. I’ve just been singing Scarpia in Tosca with Scottish Opera. In January I’m off to Stuttgart to sing Rigoletto and then in March I head to Toronto for Aida.
What do you enjoy most about working with Dunedin Consort?
Having worked with period ensembles across the world, it’s been rare to find a specialist group who are so welcoming to artists who usually work in other areas of repertoire. The field of Baroque performance can be hugely intimidating to those of us not from a cathedral chorister or choral scholar background, but Dunedin Consort and John Butt make it fun. And when you’re having fun, you sing better!