Too Hot to Handel?
Of course my first blog post would be titled with such a pun...
Last year I had the immense pleasure to be a finalist in the London Handel Festival Singing Competition. The final of the London Handel Festival's singing competition took place in St. George's Hanover Square where Handel had been a parishioner. The final was one of the most incredible experiences. I was struck by a conflict of feelings; the first was pride of being selected out of all the applicants, the other was being incredibly humbled. Being from the United States, the opportunity to step into a place that had been part of the everyday life of a classical composer didn’t come around as often as it would for a Mozartian singer studying in Salzburg, or a soprano preparing Puccini’s Tosca walking around the streets of Rome. It had never occured to me that these composers I put on pedestals could have had simple, or for some not-so-simple, human lives. It seems all a bit ridiculous to write it out now. So, here I was standing in front the altar of this gorgeous church where the man, just as infamous for his temperament (he swore to fling a difficult soprano out the window of his London townhouse) had worshiped. If the historical implications of the building weren’t enough, I was also singing in front of an audience who were all Handel’s aficionados and biggest fans. Just getting through the evening unscathed was an achievement in itself.
One year later, I found myself in a similar situation. As a finalist, I was invited to give a solo lunchtime recital and perform in a concert of vocal chamber works alongside the other finalists in this year’s London Handel Festival. The finalists’ concert was in the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury. The Foundling Museum is a collection housed in the Foundling Hospital. It was where impoverished mothers left their babies to be taken care of. They would leave their babies with a trinket or object that had a pair. If and when the mother would come and get their child, they would match the objects to assure they were taking home the right child. In 1750, Handel arranged a performance his Messiah and used the benefits from the concert to help fund the hospital. Upon that concert’s success, annual concerts of the Messiah were held for the hospital. He was made a governor of the hospital and was a patron until his death in 1759. In the room of our performance were paintings of Hogarth decorating every wall, and just by the harpsichord was a bust of Handel. Above our heads was another room with the Gerald Coke Handel collection which held manuscripts and Handel’s will and testament. It was incredible. I couldn’t help but feel that he was there watching us – it almost felt like it was some kind of hazing to be a part some sort of “Handel club”, at the same time as imposing this combination of incredible pressure and eagerness. How could we not all just bask in the atmosphere of this venue? I have to admit, I was a bit nervous about this concert, and I can’t help but feel like the terracotta eyes of Handel were like laser beams in the back of my head. But I had to remember, this man, despite being a terrifying man, he did everything for this hospital because he had a big heart. That led me to hope that he would be understanding if there were any mistakes in the concert.
Once getting past all the initial qualms, I ended up having wicked fun performing with the other finalists, discovering and sharing these not-so-well-known pieces by Handel and his contemporaries.