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The Way It Was

“Oh Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Moscow”

Handel’s Messiah, with its uplifting Hallelujah Chorus, must be one of the best-known works of classical music in the West. As a child, I heard it often because my uncle was a singer and he would take the bass solo part in performances of the oratorio in churches and chapels all over Yorkshire. I loved it when he rumbled dramatically: “I will shake all nations, all nations I’ll shaaake.” I myself inherited something of the singing gene and joined choirs wherever I went.

The Moscow Oratorio choir.
Spring Concert 2010

It came as a surprise to me, when I arrived in Russia, with its great musical traditions, to learn that the Russians had never heard of Handel’s Messiah. I don’t mean the peasants and workers; even my singing teacher, a Moscow Conservatory- educated pianist, had never heard of it. The reason was that in Communist times, atheist ideology prevailed and only the secular works of composers like Bach and Handel were studied. Their enormous religious output was not promoted.

In the summer of 1993, I was at a party with other Westerners, where I happened to meet a man called Andrew Sparke, who was then working for the BBC. We got talking about music and he confided to me that his great dream was to conduct a performance of Messiah. “And I would love to sing the contralto solo,” I said. There and then, we cooked up a plan to put on a performance of the oratorio and raise money for charity.

We advertised among the ex-pat community and by early autumn, had gathered a choir of enthusiastic amateurs, mainly from Britain and America, many of whom knew the oratorio pretty well, if not by heart. What were we going to call ourselves? I came up with the idea of Moscow Oratorio and the name stuck. We needed a professional choir master or mistress, though, so soprano Tatyana Gridneva from the Moscow Philharmonic stepped into that role. She brought with her two Russian pianists, who drilled the choir until they were note-perfect.

Irish businessman Colm Fitzsimons, manager of the Irish Garden Ring supermarket, agreed to sponsor us. His generosity allowed us to hire professional Russian string players and pay the airfare for a student from the London Guildhall to fly out and take the tenor solo role. Ms Gridneva was the soprano soloist. A diplomat from the American embassy sang the bass solo. And yours truly was the fat contralto in a velvet dress.

The tickets sold like hot cakes. Over two evenings in St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, then still used as the Melodia recording studios, we performed to a packed audience and raised hundreds of dollars for soup kitchens for the homeless. Conductor Sparke took a well deserved bow.

After the event,

Moscow Oratorio
Moscow International Choir

I forgot all about Moscow Oratorio but to my astonishment, learnt recently that the choir is still going— indeed it has divided into two international choirs, with ex-pat and Russian members and in both cases Russian conductors. They don’t merely sing the Messiah now but have a much wider repertoire.

Just as the Russians took over the Irish supermarkets, so they have made the choirs their own. But that is at it should be, for nobody has a monopoly on music.

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