‘Come for tea, my people’

Writing for VAN magazine last December, Benjamin Poore, a singer in London’s Philharmonia Chorus, celebrated both the Englishness and the universality of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.”

George Bernard Shaw’s observation that “Messiah” represents “the nearest sensation to the elevation of the Host known to the English Protestants” is borne out in many performances that “are less concerts than rituals,” Poore wrote, coming across as “dour, featureless spectacle . . . a clapped-out piece, from a clapped-out tradition, for clapped-out singers.”

Whether performers leave it fossilized in Anglican amber or “renew their relationship with the piece every time” – the goal of Philharmonia chorusmaster Gavin Carr – the oratorio is for Poore “an omnipresent old friend . . . that brings together all kinds of different musicians, a crossroads where amateurs get to share the stage with professional[s].”

It also can be a crossroads of belief. Handel’s title is “Messiah,” not “The Messiah.” “The lack of a definite article is key,” Poore wrote. “The work isn’t necessarily bound to one particular messiah, and this vagueness opens an imaginative door to all sorts of audiences, both secular and religious, freeing them to put their own experiences into the work.”

However variably it may be sung and played, “Messiah” is “about communities as much as it is for them,” in Poore’s view – “music of adulation and reflection” that also offers “comfort, warmth, reassurance, and the promise of hospitality.”

I Know, But: Handel’s “Messiah”