A couple of weeks ago I was excited because my singing group had just performed in the great Hall at Blenheim Palace. It was an amazing experience to be able to sing in such a beautiful setting. What could possibly top that?
This time last year I was in the process of recovering from a bout of pneumonia. It was particularly frustrating for me as I fell ill only a few days before I was due to take part in the Scratch Messiah, in the Royal Albert Hall. Instead I was stuck in hospital, having intravenous antibiotics and feeling a little sorry for myself. Months of screeching around the house trying to learn the alto part had all been for nothing. I was so disappointed that I couldn’t even bring myself to listen to a recording of the Hallelujah Chorus that was uploaded to YouTube.
For those who have never heard of the Scratch Messiah, every year, for the past 41 years, singers from all around the world have gathered in the Royal Albert Hall to perform Handel’s Messiah. This is known as the Scratch Messiah as everyone who takes part is expected to rehearse it and then turn up on the night and sing, with no final rehearsal beforehand.
A year late, but, finally I got my chance to take part.
It’s almost impossible to describe to anyone who’s never been inside the Albert Hall, just how stunningly beautiful it is. I’ll let the photographs speak for themselves. Around 3,500 singers, either individuals or choirs, had gathered from all around the UK, Europe, Canada and Bermuda. The altos had to wear something red, the sopranos, blue and the tenors and basses dark suits. There were singers seated on every level of the hall, and even up in the gods you could see blocks of red and blue. It was an incredible sight.
Before the performance, the hall buzzed with the sound of excited, if nervous, chatter. People milled around taking selfies or group photographs as a reminder of a special evening. When the members of the orchestra began to arrive, the noise briefly increased as we all hurried to find our seats. Finally, the conductor and soloists arrived and an expectant hush fell on the building.
At a flick of the hand of the conductor, the hauntingly beautiful notes of the introduction began to fill the hall. I expected to feel nervous, but having been worried right up until I boarded the coach, that something might yet prevent me from going, I felt like I was in a dream and would wake up at any moment.
After the introduction, the first soloist sand a couple of short recitatives and then conductor indicated that we should all stand. This was it. Again it’s hard to describe the sound of 3,500 voices singing. A friend who was in the audience said, ” When everyone started to sing, it was like a wave of sound had washed over us and enveloped us.” She also said that when we sang the Hallelujah Chorus, “It felt as if the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and it made me feel very emotional.” I can safely say that this also describes the way I felt throughout the performance.
At the end of the performance, we were given a standing ovation which seemed to go on for ever. The conductor and soloists left the stage to more rapturous applause, before leaving the hall, clutching a large bouquet of flowers each.
When I was in my late teens/early twenties, I was part of a gospel choir and we performed in many large venues, including the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. But performing Handel’s Messiah in the Royal Albert Hall, with around 3,500 other people, has got to be the most thrilling performance I’ve ever participated in. Many of my fellow choir members, who’d taken part last year, said that they were less nervous this time, but they would never forget their ‘first time’. Brian has already asked if anyone would be interested in taking part again next year, and I’ve said a resounding, YES.
We weren’t allowed to make any recordings, but I’ve found the recording of the Hallelujah Chorus from last year’s Scratch Messiah. I’m sure it sounded just as great this year. Enjoy.
Photos courtesy of WOAPA, Diane Iverson Mullinger and Isabel’s own.
Isabel Johnstone. 2015 ©