Performances of Handel’s Messiah coming December 2 and 3
BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
David Braun was standing in front of Choralis Camerata, the choir which he conducts, trying to get the singers to better enunciate a part of Handel’s Messiah. “I’m hearing, ‘Are we lie shee.’” he said. “I need, ‘Are we. Like. Sheep.’ Every syllable.” The choir, which is made up of about 40 amateur singers, repeated themselves.
“Are we. Like. Sheep,” they sang over and over, crashing into the final consonant and stopping into silence.
“That’s better,” said Braun, and moved on to another passage. The group was assembled for its weekly two-hour practice session in the basement of Resurrection Lutheran Church in St. Catharines, and was barely two weeks away from its first performance of the Messiah. There were few empty chairs in the arranged semi-circle, and even a singer who had laryngitis sat at the back of the room, making notes in her songbook.
Braun, 55, and in possession of a head of gray hair of formidable thickness, had begun the evening by leading the singers in warm-up exercises.
“A big drink of oxygen,” he said, instructing the group to inhale deeply before having them “breath it out through a straw.”
He started humming alone, deeply, and then the whole choir joined in and filled the room with a resonant buzz that sounded like an airplane landing when they trailed off.
The next exercise, a hum at a higher frequency, was redolent of a UFO’s approach. Lynne Honsberger, Choralis’s pianist, joined in when Braun directed the choir to began singing phrases.
“I love to sing, indeed I dododododododododo,” they chanted, running up and down the musical scale.
Braun began violin lessons when he was seven and has played ever since. For nearly 30 years has been a member of the Niagara Symphony Orchestra, in which his wife Deborah also performs, as the principal harpist. He has been Choralis’s director since 2012, and during this period the group has performed a number of different choral works. Choralis performs the Messiah every other year, and Braun said its audience is particularly diverse. “It’s a show where we see many generations of families—grandparents and grandchildren,” and it is evident that he feels the piece is something special.
“It’s been written of the Messiah that no other musical work has done more to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, or foster the orphan,” said Braun. “There’s a power to it—a message of hope.” Such a phrase could surely be applied to many works, though persistence of the Messiah’s popularity indicates that it is unique. Written in 1742 by the German composer Georg Friedrich Handel, the Messiah is thought to have been finished in just 24 days, a fraction of the year or two that most comparable works required.
“It behooves the commoner to work hard,” said Braun of Handel’s feat. Commoners is perhaps too diminishing of a term for Choralis’ singers, but in any case, they are amateurs.
“Many of them have been singing since they were teenagers,” said Braun, “be it in church choirs or other groups.”
For most of Choralis’ members, those teenage years were long ago, and so they are well-practised, but there are number of younger singers too.
“We had a lot of students from Brock’s music program last year,” said Frieda Peckham, another member of the group. “They wanted the opportunity to sing more ambitious pieces. There are fewer this year, but still we have a few.”
Either way, the singers were not lacking in vigour. When Braun asked them to “stand from the waist,” two men eagerly bounded all the way to their feet.
“He said, ‘From the waist!’” said several of those who had remained seated. The two who stood smiled sheepishly and sat down again.
As Braun moved the group further into the rehearsal, he pushed towards ever-greater precision in his critiques.
“There’s about three of you singing slower than the rest of the team,” he said at one point. “Always move forward with confidence,” he commanded at another. Braun teaches music at Centennial Secondary School, and his manner at the rehearsal was indeed one of an amiable teacher.
“The tenors are kicking some pretty serious choral butt,” he said to the altos. “So your response has to be more forceful.” The altos nodded and promised more force.
“Let’s stay seated for this part,” said Braun, as he flipped to another page in his hefty conductor’s score for the Messiah. Then he changed his mind.
“Wait a minute—we’re performing this in two weeks. Stand up!” (Choralis will perform Messiah at Centennial for its students this week, and then has two scheduled public performances: Saturday in St. Catharines, and Sunday at the school.)
The singers stood up and sang. Braun made a few adjustments, looking at his page and encouraging various parts of the room to “dig in.” When finally they had gotten it just right and finished a phrase just how Braun had envisioned it, he clasped his hands and smiled.
“Ah,” he said. “That’s glorious.”