We are in the school hall of the Bishop Anstey High School which is adjacent to the spanking new $518 million National Academy for the Performing Arts in Port of Spain. It is a hot Sunday afternoon. The hall is closed-off, there are large glass panels that let in light but not air; the main air-conditioning unit is not working. There are only a few fans. Pat Bishop has a rusty cowbell she uses to call everybody to attention.
"Allyuh could stand up now," she says, ready to take the Lydians through another section of Handel's Messiah in preparation for their upcoming series of concerts this week at Queen's Hall. Bishop, acting urgently given the fact that the opening show is a few days away on Thursday night, speaks like a cross between a school-teacher and an army commander. She suddenly realizes that she’s made a mistake; the section she wants sung does not require the choir to stand. "Allyuh could sit back down," she says, a slight hint of mischief in her voice. "Sorry about that, my fault."
The choir, a mix of young men and women of all ages, look tired, but they grudgingly obey. To not obey is to risk incurring the wrath of The Pat. Singers shuffle into position at her whim and fancy, dancers pirouette and flutter at her beck and call, musicians play only under her instruction.
During this rehearsal, soloists come out of the rows of singers like hunters coming out from a forest. Some have difficulty with their sections. They look to Pat who either reassures them all is well or gives needed instruction. She often stops them mid-note when she wishes to convey the impression that she thinks they've got a particular section just right and then moves on, without pause, to another.
"There is a method to my madness," Bishop explains to the Lydians during a particularly difficult section of the rehearsal. With an acute sense of the structure of Messiah, she's trying to get all sections to flow smoothly, without wasted,
Messiah will feature tassa and steelpan for the first time ever, anywhere on Earth. It's an odd claim to fame for a piece of music notorious for not having one single "authentic" version, given how Handel was inclined to constantly vary it to match his circumstances. One thing is clear though. While this production will not radically alter the structure and form of Handel's intricate word-painting, it's gonna rock. The juxtaposition of tassa and pan with a piece that has earned a reputation for being a favorite of the conservative classical crowd (despite the music's rock-star tendencies) is notable.
But do we need to stage Messiah now? What's the relationship between this piece of music and our own history? Society? Culture? Or does the asking of these questions impose an artificial barrier between us and this music, a barrier which no great art admits or tolerates? Thus perhaps the question should be: why not? And why not now given the constant need for hope?
"This is a great piece of music," Bishop tells her soldiers at the end of three long hours of rehearsal. "I want each and every one of you, when you go home tonight, to reconnect with just how great this piece of music is."
Bishops Antesy High School Hall on Sunday, December 7, 2009.
Tickets for Messiah are available at the Queen's Hall box office. CHECK the Queen's Hall website here.