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Messiah at the Palace

For a choir that loves Baroque music as much as we do, any performance of Handel’s Messiah is special. When that performance is at Christmas, it becomes even more special. And when it’s in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace – to an audience of over 400 people, alongside the famous choir of the Chapel Royal, St James’ Palace – it becomes very, very special indeed.

When Huw first mentioned that performing Messiah at the Palace was in prospect, to mark the retirement of the Sub-Dean of Her Majesty’s Chapels Royal, he queried whether Cantemus members would be willing to take a day off work. Needless to say, there were no worries on that score! And as December 10th drew nearer, leave forms were handed in, concert outfits sent to the dry cleaners, train tickets booked, throat lozenges sucked, and Messiah scores dusted off to pore over some of Handel’s trickier passages. Despite most of us having sung the piece many times before (one soprano over 40 times!), we could not risk sounding – or looking – anything less than our very best.

Palace with choristers day

Arrived and ready for action!


The train down to Paddington that morning was filled with pre-Christmas revellers and shoppers, many of whom, despite the early hour, were already enjoying a seasonal tipple or two. But for us, the celebratory champagne would have to stay on ice until later that evening.

BP Rich and Becky Messiah

Hallelujah! A quick warm up before rehearsal (with sunglasses to deter unwelcome autograph hunters)


Once safely arrived at the Palace, and after navigating the tight security procedures, we were escorted to the Ballroom. We waited while Huw finished putting the orchestra and soloists through their paces, then it was straight into an intense couple of hours of tutti rehearsal with the Chapel Royal boys and men. Afterwards, we were shown to our designated changing areas for a welcome cup of tea and a chance to unwind before the evening’s performance.

Just before 6.30pm, we filed onto the stage. Immediately we were struck by the warm and relaxed atmosphere; quite the opposite of the formal, restrained reception we might have been expecting in such an illustrious setting. Huw introduced the concert, paying tribute to the Sub Dean, and then it was over to Canzona, the fourteen-piece Baroque orchestra. They struck up the grave, stirring chords of Messiah’s overture, and shortly afterwards the combined chorus rose to its feet for “And the glory of the Lord”. Any worries we might have had about the acoustic in the carpeted Ballroom soon vanished. The rich, blended sound of the two choirs cut through the vast space effortlessly, the familiar semiquaver passages crisp and precise.

The Chapel Royal trebles, resplendent in their red and gold uniforms, took turns to deliver the soprano solo numbers. They did so with great poise and aplomb; an extraordinary achievement given their young age. No doubt there were some very proud parents in the audience that night! Meanwhile, the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal Choir, many of whom are established soloists in their own right, all gave fine interpretations of the tenor, alto and bass arias. A particular highlight was the opportunity to sing alongside Cantemus’ President and former Gentleman of the Chapel Royal choir, James Bowman, who joined the ranks of the alto section for the evening.

BP with choristers night

We did it!


Best of all, however, was the reaction of the audience. The standing ovation and enthusiastic applause that we received will stay with us for a long time to come. A huge thank you to Huw, for directing both choirs superbly and for making all of this possible, and, of course, to Buckingham Palace for inviting us. All in all, it was truly a unforgettable night that will stay with all of us for the rest of our lives – and yes, we did get round to opening that champagne!

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