Not Just The Hallelujah! An Interview with Tom Anderson, conductor | The Flying Inkpot
Many are familiar with its famous Hallelujah chorus, but far fewer have heard Handel’s Messiah in its entirety. Derek Lim from The Flying Inkpot speaks to conductor Tom Anderson, who will conduct the Consonance Chamber Orchestra and Choral Collective in Handel’s Messiah at the Victoria Concert Hall on 23 April 2023, with soloists Joyce Lee Tung, Rebecca Chellappah, Jonathan Charles Tay and Alvin Julian Tan.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Flying Inkpot: Hi Tom, thank you for speaking with The Flying Inkpot. Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to this part of the world.
Tom Anderson: I’m a Singapore-based American [Ed: Tom was born in Alabama] conductor, which is how I like to describe myself these days. So [I feel] more of a connection to Singaporean friends and this culture that’s now really my home culture. I’ve been here 24 years.
My wife and I were always interested in international work. So when a music position opened up here in Singapore back in 1999, one of my university professors recommended me for the job and told me I should look into it. I came out for a recce and fell in love with the opportunity. We thought we’d be here for three to five years, but we ended up staying, and it’s been very good for our family. Now my kids are adults, and most of them have left the island. One’s graduated from university, the other’s about to graduate, and then another one is about to start university.
We liked the culture, of course, and the safe and clean elements of Singapore, and [that] we could always return to North America during the summers to reconnect with our family. So being overseas was not a luxurious life; we just felt unique and privileged to be able to live overseas in another culture, in another country.
[Musically,] I’ve been a lifelong musician and a lifelong vocalist, chorister, and tenor soloist. More recently, I’ve put all my skill sets into conducting and working with ensembles.
TFI: You’ll soon be conducting the Consonance Chamber Orchestra and Choral Collective in Messiah. Is this your first big concert post-Covid?
Tom Anderson: [During Covid] I started conducting the International Festival Chorus in 2021 and we had two concerts, [including] one with an orchestra last year. But this is my first concert post-pandemic, at a significant concert venue like the Victoria Concert Hall.
Consonance is a new upstart group that, the truth is, I started on a whim. I asked two friends who are very connected to the choral community, and I decided if they were keen, and if they had the time and the energy and if all the pieces fell into place, that I would start my own group. And so that’s where we are. So this is our inaugural performance!
The orchestra are professional musicians from across the island. They’re members and former members of the SSO (Singapore Symphony Orchestra), Red Dot Baroque, Re:Sound – basically the professional freelance musician community in Singapore. Many are the same musicians that I have conducted in the 15-25 orchestras that I’ve conducted over the years. Consonance Choral Collective is made up of mostly young professionals that are involved in the local choral scene, like the Singapore Symphony Chorus or former members of the SSC. Some are former choristers, some are active members of the Singapore Lyric Opera, and a few are high-achieving singers in their church choirs. And some are in school choirs. We’ve got some university-bound students who were in their JC choir. So basically experienced musicians who want to sing at a more professional level and a higher standard than you’d find in the average choir.
TFI: For people in the choral scene, singing in Messiah is like a rite of passage.
TA: That’s an excellent way to put it. I would say everybody in the chorus has sung portions of Messiah, but most have not sung all the way through.
TFI: You’ll be performing the full work this time. Why should audiences experience the full piece?
TA: It tells a story and aside from the religious or Christian aspects of Messiah, it really tells a story of faith, a story of hope, start to finish. There’s also this progression, both musically and textually. You have soloists who are the protagonists, the chorus, who are the voice of the message, and it all just comes together, in my opinion, in a masterful way.
You know, some people were fond of saying that Handel’s composition was, miraculous, that he scribed it in about 14 to 21 days. I was doing a little computing, and there’s something like 1053 measures in the whole piece. Divide that over, three weeks and, you know, he must have written a minimum of like, one to 200 measures a day. And that’s pretty amazing, for the calibre of music that it is.
TFI: Moving to this particular performance: performances of Messiah vary a fair bit in musician numbers. What can we expect from this performance?
TA: Messiah is really popularised as a large entity type of bombastic piece [but] I once saw a conductor perform it with 23 professional singers. It was more chamber-like and very authentic in its baroque performance practice and approach. And I found it really appealing, and ever since that time, I’ve aspired to do Messiah as a chamber piece. So that really is the thrust of this particular performance.
In this performance, we have more than 60 musicians. There are 38 choristers, 23 orchestra members, and six specialists for soloists, conductor and accompanist. So that makes just about 60 musicians. Even though that’s a little bit larger than what we would say is a [typical] chamber group. the whole premise of this particular performance is Messiah as a chamber work, not as a large choir and large orchestra event.
TFI: For the record now, how many times have you sung or conducted Messiah, and how has your relationship with it grown?
TA: I’ve sung it myself as a university student and then grad school, and then some church choirs that I participated in long ago. In North America, I would say it’s common in the larger metropolitan cities to have big churches with big music programmes. They hire orchestras, with professional soloists; they have very experienced music reading choirs and they do classical music. So that’s common in North America and not so common here. I’ve probably conducted Messiah more times than I’ve sung it by now – about five times now.
[Performance-wise], there are some people who you know, read a book and every time they reread it they see something new either in the characters or in the plot. And that’s how it is for me when I conduct a work – I always see something new and different, the second time around, and then the third and the fourth time around.
Maybe it sounds cheesy to say this but I really find that the maturity, the depth, and the profoundness of classical music is never old for me. I always find something new, intriguing, fascinating or challenging in a classical work every time I conduct it and that’s what’s so fascinating to me about being a classical conductor. I always find new meaning in the text of the music.
TFI: As we speak, we are in the season of Lent, and Easter’s around the corner. Was it a conscious decision to perform Messiah at this time of the year?
TA: I’m so glad you asked that question because it sets up the timing. I would say 90% of the world associates Messiah with Christmas, but Handel actually wrote it for Easter and it premiered on April 13, 1742. We’re performing it in the April anniversary on its 281st anniversary. And so I find that it’s a little bit more historically poignant that we’d be performing it in the month of its actual intention around the Easter holiday, instead of Christmas, even though the Christmas time is what people most associate with Messiah.
Tickets from $30 to $80 are available from https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/handel0423