The Orchestra of St John’s has taken to YouTube and one of its online highlights is its unique version of Messiah.
Handel’s most famous oratorio was re-scored for wind orchestra, soloists and choir by conductor John Lubbock and recorded at St John’s Smith Square, London, in March 2016, featuring Nardus Williams (soprano), Roderic Morris (countertenor), Christopher Turner (tenor), Bozidar Smiljanic (bass) and the OSJ Voices.
John Lubbock – who formed the OSJ over 50 years ago while still a student at the Royal Academy – was inspired to re-orchestrate the piece after hearing a “dreadful” wind version on BBC Radio 3.
“There were too many instruments, and very silly ones like piccolo, trombones and saxophones,” he says.
“But it did trigger the thought that a more tasteful wind arrangement might be a rather interesting exercise.”
John’s version features flutes, oboes, clarinets, trumpets and drums, alongside a continuo of keyboard, cello and bass.
“Overall, I think it makes one of the great masterpieces of Western music sound in a different and sometimes illuminating way, and our performances have been very well received by our audiences.”
Simon Payne, OSJ’s General Manager, agrees: “It works so well. Some of the voices can be heard much more easily. In some places the viola part has been given to the clarinet, and the clarinet part comes through more strongly, so it’s very interesting.
“We did it at SJE and Dorchester Abbey, as well as St John’s Smith Square, and this Christmas we’re planning to do it again at Dorchester. We can do it every three or four years, I think, without people objecting too much!”
Talking about a Christmas performance sounds optimistic in the current climate, especially as most of the orchestra’s autumn concerts have had to be cancelled, but Simon is cautiously hopeful.
“It would be lovely to be back for Christmas, but it’s too early to tell. I feel that nothing’s going to happen in early autumn.
“Over the last few weeks a lot of people have started to cancel September concerts, and that seems to be the way it’s going.
“We were going to be doing a Jazz Sebastian Bach concert at Dorchester Abbey with Gwilym Simcock and his jazz quartet, most of whom live in Germany. They were going to come over to the UK for a whole week of festivals, and they’ve all been cancelled.
“We’re supposed to be doing a concert with the Korean Autistic Youth Orchestra in Dorchester in September, and I’m certain that’s going to be cancelled because although South Korea has got over the current virus they think there’ll be a second wave.
“We also had some fundraisers planned for June and July, but they will obviously have to be cancelled.”
Simon is keen to emphasise, though, that most of their concerts have been postponed rather than cancelled.
“That’s definitely the case, if only because we know what the programmes are and we’ve paid various fees – hire fees and so on. So although it says ‘cancelled’ on the website, I think ‘postponed’ is better!”
Meanwhile, Simon is busy uploading musical treats onto the orchestra’s YouTube channel – not just Messiah, but other video clips, such as ‘Spring’ from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and a selection of CDs.
“We’ve had a rudimentary presence on there for ages, but we haven’t really pushed it in the past,” he says. “In the last month I’ve paid more attention to it and put loads more stuff up, including some of the community projects we did last year.”
The increased online presence has helped the OSJ secure Arts Council funding, which is being used to deliver new community projects.
This includes online interactive concerts for children with special needs as part of the orchestra’s sister charity, Music for Autism – set up by John and his wife, singer Christine Cairns, in 2002 – and serenading patients and staff outside local NHS wards in association with the Oxfordshire Mental Health Trust.
For all OSJ’s latest news and links to its YouTube channel, visit www.osj.org.uk