Suzi Digby

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Elizabeth Davis

Elizabeth Davis

Elizabeth Davis is the staff writer of BBC Music Magazine

Elizabeth Davis
, Updated 20th November 2013

We talk to the choral conductor about guiding over 1,000 young singers through Handel's Messiah

Suzi DigbyOn 1 December 2013, over 1,000 young singers will come together at the Royal Albert Hall to perform one of the best loved – and most challenging – pieces of classical music, Handel's Messiah. Choral champion Suzi Digby will be conducting. We spoke to her about the project.

This concert is called the Scratch Youth Messiah. Can you explain what that means?
The Scratch Youth Messiah is an opportunity for 1,200 young people to perform Handel’s Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall without having rehearsed together before the day itself. 'Messiah from Scratch' has been performed at the Royal Albert Hall in the run-up to Christmas every year since 1974. The organisers, Concerts from Scratch, have been wanting to encourage younger singers to take part in Messiah for some time, but there just wasn't the space because the evening performance sells every single seat every year - with the choir outnumbering the audience by more than two to one! Finally they have taken the plunge and have put on a second concert: the same idea (same piece, same orchestra, same soloists) but with a chorus comprising 1,200 singers under the age of 25.

Where are the choirs and singers going to come from?
There are 42 choirs from school and youth choirs joining us from across the UK: York, Milton Keynes, Worcester, Wilmslow, Sheffield, Kent, London, Cambridge, Somerset, the list just goes on.

And why is the event focused on Handel's Messiah?
The UK choral scene is unimaginable without Handel’s Messiah which plays an important part in our choral heritage. The Scratch Youth Messiah will be Handel’s own version of Messiah, not a simplified arrangement, and this will enable young singers gradually to learn Handel’s music as he wrote it, to be uplifted by its genius and to share in this masterpiece.

How are you going to go about conducting and rehearsing so many singers?
The many different participating choirs have been given very clear instructions with regard to preparing the score. In addition, for those who need extra help, we have recommended special CDs that teach one voice-part at a time, so that the choirs will be best prepared when they arrive. It is also essential that the choirs can hear the basic pulse from the orchestra as well as see it, so there will be gentle amplification of the harpsichord back to the singers. But in general, the key to conducting from a distance is that the singers should respond to the beat they see and not wait for the sound to reach them.

Finally, why do you think events such as this one and singing generally are important for young people?
Taking part in a great choral work with many others in an iconic venue with an excellent orchestra can be a life-changing experience. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard of transformational experiences involving young people and singing. To be part of something much bigger than yourself, but still to be heard, is very special. Working hard towards a common goal through singing bonds people in a way that stays with them forever. The physical, emotional and confidence-building attributes of singing are well-documented and obvious. Suffice it to say, it is the most natural thing in the world to unite through singing and I believe that young people who do not have these opportunities are missing something vital to their well-being and balanced development. 

The Scratch Youth Messiah takes place on 1 December at the Royal Albert Hall. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

Contributor profile

Elizabeth Davis

Elizabeth Davis

Elizabeth Davis is the staff writer of BBC Music Magazine

Elizabeth Davis