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There are so many Handel Messiahs, since its the rare piece that has stayed in the repertory since it was written, almost 300 years ago. Its changed with the times. Theres Handels version, of course. Less than 50 years later, Mozart made a version and added winds. In the 19th century, Ebenezer Prout did an arrangement with trombones, and in the 1950s, Eugene Goossens added cymbals, glockenspiel, harp. Andrew Davis has done one more recently.
So today Messiah is being presented in so many different ways. The purely historically informed way which tries to get back as much as possible to Handels time is happening, of course, but its not what everyone necessarily loves. I get as much negative feedback for doing it as positive. Some of the most negative feedback was always from my dad; he passed away this year, but he and I just totally disagreed on the concept of early music. He wanted Handel to sound like all the other, primarily 19th-century music that he knew.
When the historical performance movement began in earnest, I was part of the first generation that didnt have to unlearn the piece to relearn the piece. Im 51, and my time as a boy chorister coincided with New York Citys first historically informed Messiah. That was in 1979, with Gerre Hancock leading the Concert Royal and the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys. It was lean and clean, and probably not that much different than how I do things now.
One of the things that the historically informed performance movement did has nothing to do with historical performance I mean with using the right instruments, the right tuning, the right tempos, all of that. In terms of any kind of interpretation, one of the major things about Messiah is, it is 52 movements long. If you think of it as a multi-movement work, in which you take time between each movement, that is a very specific choice that is based out of the concert hall; it becomes a concert piece, where each movement is a discrete thing. If you were to just look at the piece, theres no reason you wouldnt approach it that way.
But obviously thats not what I do. And its because the historical performance movement reintroduced modern performers to opera from the 17th and 18th centuries, and we started to rediscover Handel as an opera composer. Once you perform a Handel opera, you can never perform Messiah the same way again. So the dynamic has to do with people from the lyric stage versus the concert stage. Once you look at Messiah as a dramatic piece even though from the libretto, its one of the least dramatically inclined works there is the music is so clearly organized to drive forward.
Four visions of the opening
Everybody loves to trash Thomas Beechams recording of the Goossens version, but it has vitality and energy; I dont find it turgid or slow. You can do a dramatic performance of Handels Messiah with the Goossens orchestration; what you have to figure out is a sense of pacing, and what pulse works.
The Robert Shaw version is very interesting as well. The opening Sinfonia is so square and academic; it doesnt say anything to me. And then I went back to John Eliot Gardiner, his recording from 1982. When I was first listening to it, it was 1989, because I started conducting Messiah in 1990. I went back to listen to it today thinking that I had ripped off all his tempos, and hes so slow! Paul McCreesh does do my tempos.
In those first two measures, you know where youre going to go for the next 2 1/2 hours. Are the gestures dotted or double dotted? Is there a dynamic scheme? Does the theology impose upon the choice of tempo or gesture? Its about this battle between light and the absence of light. And the piece is called Messiah, not The Messiah; its messiah as a concept. Do you start it softly, as if its coming from a distance, and as it repeats it gets louder, which would imply something teleological? Do you do something generic like the first time its mezzo-forte, then maybe you come down softer at the repeat and crescendo to the end? Do you use harpsichord or organ?
This is expert music, and you want done expertly, particularly in Part 1 when the boy choir isnt doubled. If you have a skilled boy choir, it can be wonderful, but eight or nine sopranos would be my ideal. For the alto section, I use a technique a lot around voicing Renaissance motets, of combining countertenors and altos in a single part; I call it the Farinelli effect, after that movie. (They basically combined countertenor Derek Lee Ragin and a soprano to create the effect of a castrato.) And the tenors and basses are the tenors and basses.
Hallelujah times three
Something like the Hallelujah chorus sounds amazing with a huge chorus and full orchestra. The 1959 Beecham recording is extraordinary. Its off the charts. But also John Eliot Gardiner and Paul McCreesh these are three totally viable, wonderful versions, and very different. But its interesting: I cant remember one where somebody took sort of a slowish tempo.
There are endless choices. How to present the whole piece, for one thing. Do you do it with two intermissions, after the first and second parts? No one does that because after the Hallelujah chorus at the end of Part 2, everyone is going to leave. So maybe a quick pause before the third part. But a colleague of mine broke it up after All we like sheep, which ends It was laid on him, the iniquities of us all. Its very dark, and like saying to the audience, Go screw yourself. Thats an interpretive choice.
With the aria If God be for us, Ive heard it be a solo boy soprano, solo violin, cello, organ. And with the purity of that, youre really asking the question: If God be for us, who can be against us? Theres a very specific objectivity and purity.
You could also have it be full strings and a lyric soprano, and then it becomes a love song. Its like the high point of a love scene in an opera. With the choice of how you realize this, those two different worlds can be activated, and that will inform how you will hear Worthy is the lamb, which comes next to close the piece. If the first aria has that simple purity, Worthy is the lamb makes it a kind of apocalyptic purity. The power and the majesty then come through. If you have the love-song version, then Worthy is the lamb is just furthering the whole concept of love. The small version of If God be for us followed by big version of Worthy is the lamb feels more Protestant to me; the other feels more Catholic, what you would hear in Mexico City or Montreal.
At Trinity, we dont have the standard quartet of soloists for the arias, but different people come forward from the chorus for each of them. I first did that in 1990. I was 20 years old, and the university organist and choir master at Boston University. It was the height of the AIDS crisis, and we did it as a benefit. And because it was about something else, I didnt want to hire special singers. It just felt like the right way to do it to keep it in house. And that probably caught on. I wonder if that is how Trinity started doing it. Because when I interviewed at Trinity, one of the interview questions was, Are you going to change our tradition of soloists coming out of the choir? And I was like, I started that!
The Trinity Choir happens to be a choir of soloists. But its also very hard to find one singer who can do all those arias. I think if you have a different soloist for each, those arias then can tell their own story, and tell their own trajectory. Theres a whole lot to gain.
The biggest hurdle this piece faces is its familiarity. I always tell people to play it and sing it to the person who has never heard it or seen it. It has to be electrically charged for that new person. Even if a piece is the best piece on the planet, you need to do something with it.
Julian Wachner, director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street in New York, organizes hundreds of performances each year for the church. But he has become best known for his annual Messiah, perhaps the best of the citys many versions of Handels classic oratorio. It cannot take place this year in person, of course, but on Dec. 13 Trinity will stream a 2019 performance on Facebook.
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