Last year, thanks to the quirky central London arts venue, Stone Nest, I discovered the London Handel Festival. Not only was I not a great Handel fan at that point but I had scarcely heard any of his music. But an imaginative, innovative and totally mesmerising performance of four of Handel’s early cantatas, In the Realms of Sorrow, blew me away. So much so that that not only did I go on to most of the other performances in the festival (see here for the relevant post) but I signed up as a volunteer for this year. Which is how I came to be at St George’s Hanover Square last Thursday evening for the launch of the 2024 festival.
The 2024 season is a special one for the festival because it marks the 25th – and final – year of Musical Director Laurence Cummings‘ tenure – although he was careful to reassure his huge and loyal fan base that he will not be stepping away. It also sees the re-opening of Handel’s home next door to ‘his’ church, St George’s Hanover Square after major refurbishments – the Handel Hendrix House. Randomly the legendary guitarist Jimmy Hendrix lived next door Handel’s house in the 1960s when he was based in London when he not only visited Handel’s house but, apparently bought and played records of both Messiah and the Fireworks music. The museum pays tribute to both musicians. There will be a special evening session at the house on April 16th.
It is hard to pinpoint the high point of the festival as there are so many – but one is most certainly the Handel Singing Competition. Following in Handel’s footsteps (he was known to train and encourage young singers) the competition got underway in 2002 and has subsequently launched many of the best known names in the singing world. Both the semi final (12 singers) and the final (5-6 singers) are held in St George’s as part of the festival accompanied by the harpsichord and then by the full London Handel Orchestra. As Laurence Cummings said on Thursday evening – this gives the competitors the opportunity to perform pieces of their choice with a full orchestra in public – a very different (and hopefully much more enjoyable) experience than the usual hothouse atmosphere of competitions. The semi final of this year’s singing competition will be on March 19th, the final on April 19th.
The BIG pieces
The Handel blockbusters for 2024 kick off with the opening concert on March 14th – the 1732 oratorio, Esther. This is a rarely performed piece which requires over 60 performers on stage.
Next up is the St John Passion to be performed at St George’s on Good Friday, March 29th, and including a wonderful line-up of soloists, all of whom have previously been prize winners of the Singing Competition.
And to close the festival on April 20th, the three act Italian opera Arianna in Creta based (obviously, it being Handel) on a tempestuous Greek legend. This cast includes two Singing Competition alumni and international Handel superstar Sonia Prina, who makes her debut at the Festival.
Full details on the festival site but here to get you in the mood are a few bars from Jess Dandy who sings in Esther on March 14th and who also sang for us on Thursday.
The interactive pieces
Singing workshop – March 16th. Enthusiastic amateur Handel singers are invited to join Laurence Cummings and leading Handel scholar Ruth Smith ‘to explore just how Handel’s vocal writing is so utterly extraordinary. Singers will work through selected choruses from Messiah, focusing on the marriage of text and vocal line, examining vocal techniques and dramatic intent as well as having fun with this incredible music! For more see here.
24 hour Messiah! March 24th. A chance to sing all the choruses from the Messiah beginning to end, back to back for 24 hours to raise money for the rebuilding of the St George’s porch. For more details go here.
The Mega Exciting Event!!
Keeping the best till last – from April 10th-13th the Handel Opera Studio will perform Aci by the River – the opera Aci, Galatea e Polifemo – at the Trinity Buoy Wharf Lighthouse across from the Millenium dome – directed by Jack Furness hot from Shadwell via Garsington opera.
Aci, Galatea e Polifemo tells the story of Polifemo the single eyed giant who wishes to get his hands on the nymph Galatea – who is in love with the shepherd Aci. Mad with jealousy, Polyfemo kills Aci and, according to this version of the story, Galatea turns herself into a river. The plot offers some interesting challenges to an imaginative director/designer – and given that it is being staged on a river….. I have hopes of a very exciting evening! But there is more.
Following on from the practice in Handel’s time of offering entertainments on the way to the entertainment, audiences will be able to take a boat down the Thames to get to the lighthouse listening to ‘intimate live performances’ on the way. While those who are up for taking the tube (Canning Town – Jubilee Line) ‘will be guided to the venue via a small set of pop-up performances’.
Yes, there is indeed more – a recital with Laurence Cummings and Carolyn Sampson, Hidden Gems at the Foundling Museum, English Concert and Brockes Passion, a fascinating concert of coronation music by Handel and four contemporary composers – and yet more. Full details to be found on the Festival site.
Meanwhile, here is Laurence to play us out – and apologies for the less than perfect sound. My iPhone and I were right at the back of the church.
Meanwhile don’t forget…..
Sunday 26th November – 10a South Grove – Sunday Lunctime concert
Jazz duo – Shirley Smart – cello – and Peter Michaels – guitar
£15 to include the Bucks fizz – book here or pay on the door
The Oud meets Cuneiform – Christmas flavours from Syria and Baghdad – 1st December – 6.00 pm
Iraqi artist Khulood Da’mi will be showing some of her work (for more go to her site here) and will be selling Baghdad inspired small Christmas gifts while Syrian oud player Rihab Azar will be introducing us to her oud. To hear her play check in to YouTube here.
Book here for the concert – £15 to include wine and nibbles.
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