Proms at St Jude's: Young conductor Theo Bamber braves Handel double
PUBLISHED: 06:20 12 June 2014
By tradition St Jude's usually has a large-scale choral concert, and this year it's a complete Handel oratorio which happens not be Messiah - nothing so standard - but the piece that arguably invented English oratorio ten years before it. If only by accident.
The piece is Esther, originally written as a private entertainment for the Duke of Chandos, Handel’s patron and perhaps more (some historians speculate that they were lovers) through his early years in London.
Not much is known about the first performance in 1718 beyond the likelihood that it took place at the Duke’s estate in Edgware. But we do know that it was revised in 1720 and again in 1732 when Handel planned to stage it in a London theatre but was stopped by the Bishop of London - who objected to the secular dramatisation of biblical stories. And Esther is certainly biblical.
A liberation narrative, it features a Persian Queen who saves the Jews from mass slaughter by revealing the fact that she is herself Jewish. And it comes from the Old Testament book of Esther which has the near-unique distinction among all biblical texts of making no reference to God, although that didn’t spare it from the Bishop’s intervention.
Accordingly, the playbills announced that it would be done ‘with no action on the stage’ but ‘in a decent manner’. And as if to compensate, Handel squeezed into the score two anthems written recently for George II’s coronation – Zadok the Priest and My Heart is Inditing – for no obvious reason other than that they were good tunes and he didn’t want them to go to waste. Composers in the 18th century were practical.
The St Jude’s performance will be based on the earlier 1720 version which doesn’t feature the coronation anthems. But not to be outdone, the young conductor Theo Bamber plans to start the evening with a stand-alone Zadok on the grounds that ‘it would be a pity for the audience not to get it’. Which is fair enough.
As Bamber says, ‘to put on something like this you have to have the courage of your own convictions’. And the courage here is conspicuous, given that he’s only 22 , a student at the RCM, and on a singing rather than conducting course.
Brought up in Muswell Hill, he was a boy chorister at St John’s Cambridge and spent a year as a lay clerk at Norwich Cathedral before coming back to London for his conservatoire training. As for what happens next – voice or baton - he says he’s keeping his options open.
But one of the first things he did on arrival at the RCM was to set up his own group, the Elia Ensemble, for a Christmas performance of Messiah. And it’s that same Ensemble who give the St Jude’s Esther, with Bamber directing from the harpsichord .
‘It’s a small baroque group’, he says, ‘about twenty in the orchestra and sixteen in the chorus. But they’re good. Being a singer myself helps in finding the right people, and we’ve got some rally fantastic voices here, with serious professional careers’.
If nothing else it has the advantage of being an English language piece with English artists to perform it. Back in Handel’s day it didn’t: they were all Italian opera stars who, according to one commentator, made such ‘rare work with the English tongue, you would have sworn it had been Welch’.
The line ‘I come my queen to chaste delights’ apparently came over as ‘I comb my queen to chase the lice’. We’ll all be listening carefully for that one on the 21st.