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Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujaaaaaaahhhhh!

My latest cultural challenge was Handel’s Messiah, performed on 14th December 2012 at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, by the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, with the renowned soloist Elin Manahan Thomas. What fun!

We missed the first half an hour owing to stonking stop-start traffic virtually from the toll booth across the Severn, but were ushered into the back of the auditorium just as they reached the words familiar from readings at Christmas: Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given. From the angle of Door A we could see the orchestra, singers and the interpreter, Dr Paul Whittaker of Music and the Deaf, very well indeed, so we were very happy to stand until the interval.

First of all, full marks to St. David’s Hall for having an allocated seat block with a good sightline in the appropriate location. Venues are improving in terms of awareness and access, but, despite successfully enjoying many subtitled, interpreted, or integrated performances in recent years, we have a bank of past experience which means that we take nothing for granted! Enough probably to write a blog post, or even three, about our trials and tribulations.

Of late, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to accessibility through architecture – probably yet another blog post – but the intimacy of St. David’s Hall with its sightlines ramped up the accessibility for the deaf audience a notch; and the excellent acoustics a further notch. In short, although these things are designed to enhance appreciation of the performance in general rather than features of inclusive design per se, they do much to enhance the inclusivity of the venue.

Simple things such as including the words of the music in the programme were also an accessibility aid, particularly as the lights were on sufficiently high to be able to read them. I noticed that a number of audience members around us were also using the programme to follow – not all of them were deaf, I suspect, as the Bear was also keenly looking up the words, so it just goes to show that everyone benefits.

This is not to say that the singing could not be followed by ear, but inevitably some of the words are unfamiliar or transformed in the singing. We were both much struck by the expressivity of the singers and the weight and emotion they imparted to the words they were singing. For me being able to see and hear the singers, and watch the simultaneous sign-language interpretation, was a multi-layered experience in which each aspect supported and gained from the others.

To interpret the meaning of the libretto into sign language in movements fluid enough to express something of the musicality of the piece as well, and keep in time throughout, is a very demanding ask, but it was achieved with aplomb by Dr Whittaker – and a sprinkling of humour. I often think that, for those with eyes to see, sign language interpretation adds a dimension to arts events for hearing people – they aren’t the target audience, but still gain something that enhances their experience. (For example, at interpreted or deaf-led gallery talks, the iconicity of manual description can reach parts that technical jargon cannot, even without prior knowledge of BSL.) This was very much the case here, when Dr Whittaker interpreted the chorus singing “All we like sheep have gone astray”, where with every repetition the signs for the sheep literally went off in a different direction, a very clever bit of visual punning which was appreciated by people around us, who smiled and chuckled gently (and quietly, probably, because the performance was being broadcast on Radio 3.)

The technical challenge of interpreting the repeated phrases cannot be underestimated, in terms of timing and conveying the variations and nuances orchestrated in the music, as Dr Whittaker demonstrated in the repetition and variation of his signs for the final Amen Chorus. The whole theory and practice of sign language interpretation and performance is, I believe, something which pushes the boundaries of the arts in ways that are only just beginning to filter through.

There was other visual interest in the composition of the orchestra with period instruments, notably the theorbo with its long neck (something I was actually able to recognise from period paintings) and the trumpet solo accompanying “The trumpet shall sound”. The Bear found that the period instruments added to his enjoyment of familiar music. For me, it was not only old paintings brought to life, but also something of an introduction to “hearing culture” – I was rather surprised to find everyone getting to their feet for the Hallelujah Chorus. “Everybody knows” it’s traditional, but it was one tradition which had passed me by completely and the Bear had to explain . . . So I can definitely say that it was quite an interactive experience in many different ways.

In a much earlier post before my CI, I wrote about the concept of the Ohrwurm – a tune you can’t get out of your head and burrows into your brain. I left the hall with the Hallelujah Chorus resounding in my head and was still singing it the next morning, much to the Bear’s amusement. What was also very interesting (to me, it may be a common experience, I don’t know) was that when we stopped off at Asda en route home for some staples at some time past midnight, the muzak was in full swing and it sounded absolutely awful. It always does, but this time the Jingle Bellin’ and Away in a Mangerin’, sounded somehow much worse than usual, after listening to proper music.

Despite some of our previous horrors, as explained above, performances such as these fully justify our efforts to find experiences that we can both equally enjoy. We find that discussions afterwards can be quite interesting, because we often arrive at similar conclusions on different grounds. We both thought, for example, the tenor did not sound quite as good as the other voices (we found out afterwards he wasn’t well).

I shall leave the last word to the Bear, whose conclusion was: “You couldn’t have heard a better Messiah anywhere.”

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