Athalia comes home…

On 8 June the Oxford Bach Choir celebrated the 350th anniversary of the opening of the Sheldonian Theatre with a very special concert. Under the direction of our Principal Conductor, Benjamin Nicholas we performed Handel’s oratorio Athalia, the piece which Handel himself had premiered in the Sheldonian in July 1733. The Sheldonian is also the only surviving building to bear witness to the premiere of a Handel oratorio, and so Athalia is a piece very special to the Sheldonian – a building where the OBC has given so many concerts – and to Oxford in general.

Although (or perhaps because) Athalia is very rarely performed today, our concert was sold out several weeks in advance. The evening began with a fascinating pre-concert discussion between Professor Anthony Geraghty of the University of York and Dr. Robin Darwall-Smith of the University of Oxford on the building of the Sheldonian and on Handel’s visit there. Audience members who came along early evidently enjoyed this ‘appetiser’.

For the concert the Choir was joined by a superb team of soloists: Elin Manahan Thomas (as a magnificently angry Athalia!), Alison Ponsford-Hill (sopranos), Pip Warwick (treble), Simon Ponsford (countertenor), James Gilchrist (tenor), and Nicholas Morton (bass). We were accompanied by the brilliant period ensemble Florilegium.

At the end of the performance, a packed Sheldonian erupted in applause for conductor, choir, soloists and orchestra. We all felt that we had given the Sheldonian a rousing 350th birthday party, and made many new friends for Athalia, a dramatic and beautiful work, which deserves many more outings.

It also made for a happy way to celebrate the end of Benjamin Nicholas’s first year as OBC’s Principal Conductor.