The concluding "Amen" from George Frederick Handel's "Messiah" has seldom sounded jauntier than it did Monday night when conductor Edward Polochick put 60 singers from the Baltimore Symphony Chorus through their paces in preparation for this weekend's performances of Handel's greatest oratorio.
"Sopranos, don't slide," admonishes Polochick, who has begun this singers-only rehearsal with "Messiah's" final chorus, a musical benediction if ever there were one. "And everyone, keep it a little more reserved at Letter G."
Immediately, choral textures get clearer, and the big fortissimo entrance eight measures after G sounds even more arresting than before. The conductor has the great "Amen" exuding joyful energy, yet, for all the zippiness of his approach, the interlude never loses its sense of the sacred.
"Conducting this piece is unbelievably exciting every time out," says Polochick, of Baltimore, who recently stepped down as the conductor of the BSO chorus after 20 seasons but agreed to lead this weekend's performances at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. "I never tire of it."
Neither do audiences. Indeed, the oratorio -- crafted by Handel in a mere 24 days in August and September 1741 -- has become the most beloved choral work of them all. And although most of "Messiah" deals not with the birth of Christ but with his death and resurrection, the modern concert-going public has deemed "Messiah" to be Christmas music, par excellence. "We can't just say, `Let's give it a rest this year and do Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" or Berlioz's "L'enfance du Christ" instead,' " Polochick says. "The public wouldn't allow it."
What has been "Messiah's" hold on listeners over the past 258 years? Truly, it is musical storytelling at its finest, with exultant angel visitations ("Glory to God"), nasty, abusive crowd scenes ("He trusted in God") and the ringing triumph of life over death (the inimitable "Hallelujah") all emerging in multicolored splendor via Handel's flair for the dramatic. "Handel understands effect better than any of us," said Mozart, who also knew a few things about musical drama. "When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt."
"Messiah's" perennial freshness also comes from the fact that there is no definitive version of the piece. Handel was constantly touching it up, so modern interpreters have options galore. "I've put together a version I think Handel would be comfortable with," says Polochick, "and I perform it cover to cover without cuts. It's brilliantly constructed as it is. Taking anything out is a mistake."
But what clinches "Messiah's" popularity with greatest authority is that so many of its transcendent moments come in the 22 choral movements that lend such pomp and splendor to the score. Yes, there are marvelous solos, but "And the Glory," "He Shall Purify," "For Unto Us," "Hallelujah" and the others make up the greatest single choral festival ever written, and the power of those amassed voices proclaiming the glory of both God and Handel is what makes "Messiah" the ultimate "must-hear" of the season.
Forgotten sometimes amid "Messiah's" familiarity is its immense difficulty. The vocal dexterity it takes to negotiate Handel's rapid-fire 16th-note runs is incredible, especially at the hell-for-leather tempos favored by Polochick. Handel's phrases are lengthy, and the spiritual drama he infused into the score is anything but self-evident, as the large number of blah, perfunctory "Messiahs" available each year proves.
But after only four rehearsals (six for the "rookies" who have never sung the oratorio with Polochick before), the bold, assertive character required for a world-class "Messiah" is already there for the BSO chorus. For all its considerable difficulty, in short, "Messiah" is in repertory at the Meyerhoff; a work the BSO Chorus can spiff up and polish at a few rehearsals' notice.
That fact is not lost on Felice Homann, who joined the chorus in 1969, its first year, and spent the next 25 seasons as its president and manager. She remembers many years when a polished "Messiah" would have taken much longer than five rehearsals to produce, if indeed one could have been produced at all. "In our early days," she recalls, "we were socially minded, and hadn't learned what choral professionalism is all about. It wasn't until Ed came that we stopped knitting, correcting school papers and reading Time magazine at rehearsals and began to really focus in. He taught us how to count and how to cut off. He started us from scratch and had the patience to see it through."