Like many choral singers, I grew up with the sounds of Messiah– singing famous choruses here and there, attending annual performances at Christmas, listening to the latest recording. Our family’s Messiahtradition goes back at least to my great grandmother who was taught piano and singing in Newcastle, Britain, more than a century ago. We still have her Novello score, with her markings in the alto arias which she sang as a soloist with various choral societies. 

Sam Allchurch. Photograph © Nick Gilbert

For a young conductor, setting out to conduct Handel’s Messiahfor the first time is at once the most obvious and the most terrifying thing to do. For me, it’s music that feels both comfortable because it’s so familiar and remote because it’s such a monumental work.

Unlike the music of Bach, Handel’s music never needed a revival because it never went out of fashion. At the first performance of Messiah, there was a choir of some 20 to 30 singers and a modest orchestra. Within years of the composer’s death in 1759, large scale performances of Messiahwere being staged in his memory (notably at the Handel festival of...