Thrilling opening night of the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival

Daniel Brace
January 15, 2024

Alexander’s Feast (HWV 75) is a setting of an ode by Newburgh Hamilton by the illustrious G.F Handel. Sung in English, the story revolves around a banquet hosted by Alexander The Great, where music directs the action, eventually arousing such strong feelings of revenge that Alexander burns the host city down in retribution for his dead soldiers.

As you would expect, Alexander’s Feast is packed Handelian fare, choruses, virtuosic arias, a big orchestra including oboes, flutes, bassoons, recorders and more, and drama delivered in spades by Director Gary Ekkel. No diets or fad foods, musically speaking, in sight!

The concert was also the opening night of the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival, a series of concerts and recitals held in towns and churches across the region.

One of the delights of the format of Alexander’s Feast is that it incorporates two instrumental Concertos. We heard the Harp Concerto in B flat major Op. 4 No. 6 (HWV 294), with its angelic scoring for harp, recorders and strings. And Hannah Lane on harp delivered an equally angelic performance.

The second, which occurs towards the end of the program, was the Concerto in G minor Op. 4 No. 1 (HWV 289), played by David Macfarlane, who imbued the organ part with charm and personality.

The Alchemy Consort and the Melbourne Baroque Orchestra provided the chorus and accompaniments that also thrilled Handel’s original audience in 1736  (a crowd of 1,300 according to reports of the time!). The MBO, who are the model of performance practice for this period, produced a refined and elegant sound, rich and luscious from the opening chord to the last note.

The choruses, with big hits like ‘The list’ning crowd’ and ‘The many rend the skies’, were punchy and spirited where they needed to be, and at other times the music soared over our heads or into our hearts, assisted by the excellent cathedral acoustics. Gary Ekkel did a remarkable job of harnessing the many forces under his direction, the crescendos from the choir were thrilling.

I’m no musicologist, but I do hope there has been some relaxing of the terraced dynamics rules of Baroque music I studied many years ago. Alexander’s Feast was also called The Power of Music and was written for St Cecilia’s Day celebrations. The performance would have been less powerful without such dedication to the detail as demonstrated by Gary Ekkel.

The soloists, Quin Thomson (soprano), Dean Sky-Lucas (countertenor), the wonderful Timothy Reynolds (tenor) who was a late but marvellous addition to the lineup, Steven Hodgson (bass) and Eamon Dooley (bass), had the presence and power to fill the cathedral and be heard clearly even when competing with the orchestra and chorus.

Timothy Reynolds had a central role and shone brightly in arias such as ‘Now strike the golden lyre’ with its wonderful (did I mention hard working) trumpet obbligato.

Each singer, from Dean Sky-Lucas’ crystal clear enunciation and Steven Hodgson’s revengeful bass, to Quin Thomson’s range of expression and volume, could easily be heard in the transept (good advice to get there early and bring your own cushion).

Handel is endlessly inventive, and his arias always have something to recommend them, as do his choruses, but sometimes the words really do make the music, such as sung with great gusto by Timothy Reynolds:

War, he said, is toil and trouble
Honour but an empty bubble;
Never ending, still beginning,
Fighting still, and still destroying;
If the world be worth thy winning.. etc…

The final chorus, ‘As from the pow’r of sacred lays’ from The Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, came all too quickly and was a stunning showstopper featuring soprano Quin Thomson. It was a fitting end to a musical feast. Petit fours, for some of us, but just the aperitif for those lucky enough to be staying on for the rest of the excellent program of the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival.


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