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Händel's 'Messiah'

From the Sopranos to the Baritones...

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Ahead of the Händel Festival Choir’s upcoming performance at the Sheldonian theatre on 23 February 2020, we spoke to Tasmin Smith, the Director of The International Music Exchange, to discuss her expectations for the event and some of the background behind it. The festival – a charity concert produced in collaboration with Oxford University Tokyo, Mansfield College Oxford, C-Pro Japan, ASF London and The International Music Exchange – will mark the 335th birthday of G F Händel and to honour this, will be offering free entrance with a suggested donation of £10 to the charity, ‘Asylum Welcome’.

Is there a significant link between Händel and the chosen charity?

Händel himself was famously a UK-adopted immigrant from Germany, a fervent supporter of local charities and a notable philanthropist of the 18th century. Described by Keats as “mean with food, but not with money,” Händel arranged annual benefit performances of Messiah in London’s Foundling hospital and bequeathed a copy of the Messiah to the Institution upon his death. As well as to the Foundling Hospital, Händel also used his influence as a musician to give to the sick and to a charity that assisted impoverished musicians and their families.

Can you tell us a little about the work which Asylum Welcome delivers and why the charity was selected in conjunction with the festival?

We wanted to organise the concert as a free event with donations to a local charity. The project has a link, through its director Andrea Cavallari, with Mansfield College, which is known for being the most open and inclusive college in Oxford. Together with Somerville College, Mansfield College is applying to be recognised as a College of Sanctuary, to offer a refugee scholarship to study at Mansfield College, and to build strong and welcoming links with refugee communities. Asylum Welcome therefore seemed like the perfect link charity for this event.

Asylum Welcome has worked with refugees, asylum seekers and immigration detainees in Oxfordshire since 1993, to relieve their poverty and distress, help them access their rights and entitlements, receive a fair hearing of their asylum case, and be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. Asylum Welcome is the only organisation in Oxfordshire providing a holistic range of integrated advice and support services, backed by the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC), which address the complex issues faced by asylum seekers, refugees, and vulnerable migrants. This includes those who have been refused asylum and struggle with destitution while continuing to make their case to remain, as well as families brought to Oxfordshire from Syria under the government resettlement scheme. Its welcoming offices offer a place where people can come to use computers, submit applications, skype with family and find a cup of coffee or a friendly face.

With the right help, the refugees we see are keen to settle in and share their skills to contribute to the community.

What kind of audience are you expecting?

We expect all 485 available seats of the Sheldonian to be full. So far, requests for places have been from a wide-ranging demographic including students, international students, families, retired local residents, tourists and particular interest from the Japanese community in Oxford. Roughly half of the audience are expected to be of European or Asian origin and we even have a group travelling especially from Munich! By making the event ‘free entrance’ in Oxford’s largest venue, we endeavour to attract people from as wide ranging a demographic as possible.

The International Music Exchange has been taken to a variety of venues – do you have a favourite?

Oxford is always a firm favourite of ours as two of our team were undergraduates here. Returning to the Sheldonian with this special event is a real treat and honour for us. Our hometown of Wells, its cathedral and magnificent Bishop’s Palace are also a favourite, and further afield the Roman amphitheatre in Arles and the famous Piazza della Signoria in Florence make particularly outstanding concert venues each year for our travelling youth symphony orchestras.

Will you get the opportunity to enjoy the festival as it’s happening, or will you have to be mostly behind the scenes?

We’ve been ‘behind the scenes’ for two years now – there will no doubt be a lot of frantic running about up until the opening note but as soon as it’s underway, we are determined to sit (or stand) and enjoy the fruits of our labour!

Was there any reason for this particular venue choice?

The choir had chosen Oxford as their destination for 2020 and we visited all the possible locations (Christ Church, St Mary’s and the Sheldonian) two years ago. All were beautiful, of course, but the sheer size, majesty, and cultural and musical relevance made the Sheldonian a clear choice. We needed a lot of space for the 150+ musicians we will have on stage, and also wanted to open up the event to as wide and numerous an audience as possible. Messiah is performed regularly in the Sheldonian and Händel himself conducted Athalia there in 1733. It is believed to be the only remaining surviving building where Händel has conducted one of his own Oratorios.

Is there another musical event which would you say is a ‘must-see’ in 2020?

In 2020 we must take the opportunity to celebrate and revel in the music of Beethoven, who is such a significant figure in our cultural heritage. 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of his birth and there will be wonderful concerts on offer across the globe in his honour.

If there is any special Beethoven-related event on offer in your area – go! We will be looking out in particular for performances of his 9th symphony and late piano sonatas.

Händel's Messiah will be performing at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on 23 February 2020. Please email info@timeconcerts.co.uk to reserve your tickets.

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