It's not Christmas without `Messiah'

Public demand makes Handel's work a music staple

December 02, 2006|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

Once in his 22 years of directing the Annapolis Chorale, J. Ernest Green decided that the group would not perform George Frideric Handel's Messiah.

It was not a wise move.

"The public response was fast and vigorous," he said. "People were just absolutely incredulous that we were not doing it."

Green quickly reinstated Messiah the next year, and this year he will conduct three performances -- one by candlelight, one with guest student singers and a shorter one for families -- to accommodate the music's fans.

Professional choirs and ambitious amateur groups have made Handel's oratorio a staple -- if not a requirement -- on their schedules. Nearly a dozen performances are planned in Central Maryland alone.

Choir leaders -- some of whom have performed the piece dozens of times -- acknowledge an annual struggle to keep the work fresh for audiences and singers. They vary the arrangement, instruments -- even the portion of the work they present. The goal is to keep the artists engaged while giving listeners the experience they are looking for every year.

"It really does signal the holiday season," said Monica Otal, artistic director of the Central Maryland Chorale, which has been offering a Messiah sing-along for 20 years. "I think you just have to think of it as a tradition. People love this work. They want to hear it at Christmastime."

In fact, the full, three-part, more-than-three-hour oratorio was originally written to be performed during Lent. Words selected from the Bible by Charles Jennens and music by Handel explore the birth, death and meaning of the life of Jesus Christ.

Graydon Beeks, president of the American Handel Society, said that after a successful first performance of the piece in Dublin, there developed a tradition of performances -- including ones conducted by Handel -- that raised money for charity.

Sometime in the 19th century, groups started using the work at Christmastime, and the association of the music and the season caught on.

"It's partly `success breeds success,'" Beeks said. "It's one of those things everyone knows." The lyrics, in English, draw on biblical texts, so, he said, "it has an immediately understandable plot."

For choruses of all sizes, "it's a crowd-pleaser," Beeks added. "You're guaranteed to get an audience. If you are a choral society and you want one concert that makes money, that's it."

Some choirs tackle the entire work, including the Concert Artists of Baltimore Symphonic Chorale with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which for 25 years has performed Messiah in its entirety. The Maryland Chorus, based at the University of Maryland College Park, plans to do the full oratorio this weekend for its first Messiah performance in 10 years.

The more common approach is to perform the first part, which tells the Christmas story, and then a few selections from Part II and possibly Part III, ending with the popular "Hallelujah chorus," which officially is the end of the second part.

Amateur groups often work hard to prepare for the challenging choral parts and hire professional soloists and instrumentalists to complete the ensemble.

With so many Messiahs -- and so many repeat performances -- artistic directors say they look for ways to keep it fresh.

Conductor Edward Polochick said he uses the professional singers and musicians of the Concert Artists of Baltimore and the BSO to stage a swiftly moving version of the entire score with a condensed structure and vocal embellishments inspired by Handel's Baroque background.

Polochick said the rapid pace has been well-received and "helps to set it apart, to be something you haven't heard before."

The Handel Choir of Baltimore's director, Melinda O'Neal, said Handel rewrote pieces of the oratorio several times, depending on the vocalists he had.

She likes to rotate different versions and different selections in and out of performances each year "to keep it lively, so [the singers] don't go on automatic pilot."

She also plans to use period instruments and a relatively small chorus of 43 members to get closer to the way the piece would have sounded in Handel's time.

The U.S. Naval Academy, in contrast, is proud of its large-scale Messiah -- in its 60th year -- which will use 200 academy singers, guest singers from Hood College, an orchestra and the academy's refurbished organ for two sold-out performances Dec. 9-10.

"We have very large-scale tonal forces, and we will use them to create dramatic effect," said Barry Talley, chairman of musical activities at the academy.

Talley, who will conduct his 25th and last Messiah performance this year, said the grand setting of the 2,000-seat chapel and the men and women in uniform gives the event an emotional punch.

The Central Maryland Chorale decided 20 years ago to widen the appeal of its Messiah by inviting the audience to sing along. Otal said the group hands out music at the door, divides attendees into sections and relies on its regular members to lead the way.

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