The 79-year-old Handel Choir of Baltimore has made a point of honoring its namesake every year with a performance of the oratorio "Messiah." But on Saturday at Old St. Paul's, the chorus will focus on the "Baltimore" portion of its name with a concert celebrating the city's history and diversity.
This program is the brainchild of the Handel Choir's artistic director, Arian Khaefi, now in his first season with the ensemble.
"I tried to choose repertoire that would reflect the different ethnic communities and faiths," Khaefi, 29, said. "There will be spirituals to reflect the vibrancy of the African-American community. The choir will be performing sacred and secular works in multiple languages — English, Spanish, Hebrew, Greek, Latin to represent Catholics."
Among the works on the program will be a Greek folk song commemorating the women of Zalongo in 1803.
"After an Ottoman attack, they went to the highest peak and threw themselves over," Khaefi said. "They would rather die as free people than as slaves."
The concert also takes note of a luminary from Baltimore's past, Edgar Allan Poe. The chorus will sing a setting by Timothy Jon Tharaldson of Poe's "To One in Paradise."
This musical portrait of Baltimore also includes a nod to the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key's poem "Defence of Fort McHenry," which became the text for our national anthem. Several arrangements of "The Star-Spangled Banner" will be performed, including one by a contemporary of Key.
For Khaefi, this concert is part of his desire to find fresh paths for one of the city's oldest musical institutions.
"We need to be thinking about where the Handel Choir fits into Baltimore," he said. "I am interested in how to integrate the group into the community in new ways, figuring out what places to perform in."
Born in Rome in 1984 of Iranian parents and raised in the United States, Khaefi came to this area in 2012. With bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a doctorate from the University of Michigan, he was appointed director of choral activities at Towson University and continues to hold that post.
When he heard that Melinda O'Neal was stepping down as Handel Choir director after eight years — a tenure notable for substantial artistic improvements to the ensemble — Khaefi decided to apply for that job, too.
"I knew about Melinda when I was in graduate school," he said. "My mentors talked about her work here. And I went to her last 'Messiah' with the Handel Choir. I was very impressed."
Since taking the helm, Khaefi has remained impressed.
"They are a fiercely dedicated group, with some members going back 20 years," he said. "Their history is so strong. And they have been totally accepting of me. They're eager to experiment."
That experimenting includes performing works the choir isn't know for, such as Rachmaninoff's profound, a cappella "All-Night Vigil," which Khaefi will conduct in April. Future seasons may include lesser-known Handel works, French baroque and contemporary music.