George Frederick Handel's Messiah, easily the most popular choral work ever written, is not without its share of ironies.
Though immense in scale, it took only 24 days to compose.
While the work has come to personify Christmas, most of the music depicts the death and resurrection of Jesus, not the circumstances of his birth.
Despite its popularity, there's no definitive version of Messiah. The composer refurbished the work constantly, leaving modern-day interpreters with a staggering number of options.
And while musicians perform the work over and over, to what one might think would be the point of drudgery, it remains ever fresh and the thrill never dies.
"I always figured I would avoid doing Messiah every year," says choral conductor Frances Motyca Dawson, whose Columbia Pro Cantare will present its annual performance of Handel's masterwork Sunday evening at Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School. "But I love doing it. It's wonderful for singers to have a piece they can keep returning to, something they can gauge their progress by.
"The better we know it, the better we sing it. And the better we sing it, the more meaningful the whole experience becomes. That's a great lesson for the once-a-week musician to learn."
Duncan MacDonald of Columbia, a Pro Cantare bass who has sung in his share of Messiah performances in his 26 years with the ensemble, isn't jaded either. "Every year, we get better at it," he says. "It isn't an easy work - far from it - but the piece is a lot of fun to put together. This music has become as much a tradition of the season as a Christmas tree."
This year, as it has for several years, Pro Cantare's traversal of Messiah's Christmas Portion plus sections from Parts II and III will feature soprano Amy Van Roekel; mezzo soprano Rosa Maria Pascarella; tenor Charles Reid, who is now a member of the Metropolitan Opera's regular roster; and bass Lester Lynch, who has multiple performances with Milan's La Scala and the Lyric Opera of Chicago to his credit.
"It's almost like we have a little repertory company going," says Motyca Dawson. "With soloists you know well, you can see artistic growth in them, too. And it's fun to see their careers take off in the interim. I think our audiences like that, too."
Soloists aside, Messiah's true splendor - and perhaps the largest measure of its immortality - is found in the extraordinary choruses that lend such dramatic pomp and pageantry to the oratorio. "And the Glory of the Lord," "And He Shall Purify," "For Unto Us a Child Is Born," "Glory to God," the "Amen" and, of course, the transcendent "Hallelujah," are the life's blood of Handel's creation. "Raphael paints wisdom," Ralph Waldo Emerson once said. "Handel sings it."
"I did think I did see all heaven before me and the great God himself," Handel is reputed to have said of his devotional three weeks at work on Messiah. While biographers may debate the authenticity of his words, there's no debating the power of his creation.
"For word painting, for drama and for telling a great story, there's no other piece of music like it," Motyca Dawson says. "It can reach anybody."
Columbia Pro Cantare presents the Christmas Portion and selections from Parts II and III of Handel's "Messiah" at Jim Rouse Theatre, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets purchased in advance are $23 for adults; $20 for students and seniors. Tickets sold at the door are $25 and $22. A pre-concert lecture will be given at the theater from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Refreshments will be served courtesy of the Elkridge Furnace Inn. Information: 410-465-5744 or 410-799-9321.