Hallelujah, the season of `Messiah' is upon us

MUSIC

Music Column

December 13, 2005|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It's hard to imagine Christmastime without Handel's Messiah. Never mind that the composer wrote it for the Lenten season or that only one-third of the score is directly related to Christmas. The piece is as much a part of the holidays as "Silent Night."

And the music is pretty much indestructible. From its more or less humble origins in 1742, when it was premiered with a modest-sized chorus and orchestra, Messiah has survived major expansion (Victorians loved hearing it super-sized), both glacial and breathless tempos, operatic stuffiness and various other questionable stylistic approaches.

As the Soulful Symphony reminded listeners over the weekend, the piece can handle major updating without harm.

The oratorio has been performed somewhere every single year since its debut in Dublin, an extraordinary, unbroken record that is sure to continue for many more centuries.

Scholars, especially in the past few decades, have shed welcome light on Handel's original intentions and expectations, leading to many a revelatory performance. A fresh example can be found on a recording of Messiah from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi/Sony BMG that offers a strikingly vibrant, deeply sensitive, historically informed interpretation by the Concentus Musicus Wien, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Speaking of scholars, they've also pretty much debunked one of the persistent traditions associated with the work - the practice of standing for the "Hallelujah" Chorus.

The familiar story has it that King George II, attending the first London performance of the piece in 1743, suddenly jumped up, reasons unspecified, during the singing of what has become the most familiar of all Messiah excerpts. And when the king stood, everyone else automatically had to do the same.

The only problem is that no record of that monarch's attendance has ever surfaced. He may have gone unannounced, but, in that case, probably would not have attracted the attention needed to get everyone upright. At any rate, the first written mention of the standing tradition appears to be from the mid-1750s, and it refers to standing for choral numbers - plural. Go figure.

No one stood when Soulful Symphony reached the "Hallelujah" finale of its presentation Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, but lots of bodies were in motion. This "Hallelujah" was one of several selections from Messiah: A Soulful Celebration, produced by Quincy Jones and arranged by Mervyn Warren, Michael O. Jackson and Mark Kibble.

In this version, Handel's baroque score gets gospel-ized enthusiastically, if repetitively. Soulful Symphony artistic director Darwin Atwater drew rousing performances from his chorus and soloists, a sometimes ragged response from his orchestra (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra members played alongside Soulful personnel).

Highlights included Jason Nelson's vivid singing in "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth" and Jacob Yaffee's suave sax solo in "Behold the Lamb."

The concert opened with Duke Ellington's inventive take on Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, which inspired some potent playing, but needed greater clarity of detail and, from Atwater, more engaged guidance.

Messiah, which also had its annual Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performances over the weekend with incisive conductor Edward Polochick, will be back this weekend when the Handel Choir of Baltimore makes its annual presentation.

Although not performed complete this year, the oratorio will again have the benefit of a valuable practice begun last year by new artistic director Melinda O'Neal - the use of a period instrument orchestra, which can reveal all sorts of wonderful textures in the score.

Accomplished baroque players from around the region and elsewhere are coming in for the performance, which will feature selections from all three parts of the oratorio.

The vocal soloists are likewise from near and far, including tenor Jason McStoots of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society and baritone Benjamin Park, a Peabody Conservatory grad student.

Part VI of Bach's brilliant Christmas Oratorio will complete the program.

The concert is at 4 p.m. Sunday at Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road. For more information, call 410-366-6544 or visit handelchoir.org.

Speaking of the Handel Choir, its former director, T. Herbert Dimmock, will lead his 25-member a cappella ensemble, the Herb Dimmock Singers, in a holiday program that ranges from traditional carols to the zaniness of P.D.Q. Bach.

It's at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at First English Lutheran Church, 3807 N. Charles St. For more information, call 717-533-6873 or visit herbdim mocksingers.org.

An die Musik

For something a little different, consider the lineup this weekend at An die Musik:

A "holiday cabaret" featuring the always-engaging mezzo-soprano Jennifer Blades in music by Gershwin, Porter and Sondheim, as well as seasonal fare. 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Friday.

A recital for double bass, an instrument that doesn't often step all the way into the spotlight, featuring BSO bassist David Sheets in works by Grieg, Hindemith and Persichetti at 3 p.m. Sunday.

An die Musik is at 407 N. Charles St. For more information, call 410-385-2638.

Grammy nominees

The list of Grammy nominations rang some local bells.

The Colorado Symphony's recording of Michael Daugherty's percussion concerto UFO (a Naxos release), with soloist Evelyn Glennie and conducted by Marin Alsop, music director-designate of the Baltimore Symphony, is nominated for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance with Orchestra.

Another Naxos release, William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and Experience, with University of Michigan vocal and instrumental forces conducted by National Symphony music director Leonard Slatkin, is nominated for Best Classical Album, Best Choral Performance and Best Classical Contemporary Composition.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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