A seasonal tradition continues as Columbia Pro Cantare gives its 32nd annual performance of Handel’s “Messiah” on Sunday, Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Jim Rouse Theatre. When the musical forces on stage deliver the famous “Hallelujah” chorus, the audience definitely will be filled with holiday spirit.
The great irony surrounding George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” is that Handel and librettist Charles Jennens created this choral masterpiece for Easter, not Christmas. First performed in Dublin in 1742, the thematic agenda of “Messiah” includes a boisterous celebration of the resurrection of Christ.
It’s such a theologically expansive piece, however, that it also takes Christmas into account. Specifically, Part I concerns biblical prophecies that include the birth of Jesus. That explains why “Messiah” eventually became identified with the Christmas season.
As is its traditional practice in performing this lengthy composition, Columbia Pro Cantare will do the Christmas section and selections from Parts II and III of “Messiah.” Even with these customary editorial trims, the performance clocks in at around two hours.
For the upcoming performance, the Columbia Pro Cantare chorus and Festival Orchestra will be joined by soprano Amy Van Roekel, mezzo-soprano Leah Serr, tenor Charles Reid, baritone Lester Lynch, and Henry Lowe playing the positiv organ.
These featured performers are themselves veterans of doing “Messiah” with Columbia Pro Cantare. So, the audience can expect to see a lot of familiar faces and hear a lot of familiar voices on stage.
Thank goodness for that familiarity, because the soloists’ busy schedules and other logistical considerations mean that all of the performers will only have a single rehearsal on Dec. 1.
“It’s very hard with one rehearsal,” Columbia Pro Cantare music director Frances Motyca Dawson said with a laugh. “Every minute is important and there is very little time to repeat anything. It’s a very tight performance. It’s a challenge to get through.”
Dawson added that even though her chorus and soloists know this piece well, there are eight new members in the 90-member chorus.
Also, a choral work as complex as “Messiah” involves a number of interpretive decisions that must be made along the way, and Dawson often looks to make minor adjustments from year to year.
“There are always places where I want to make changes. I need a whole new set of pencils” for marking up the score, Dawson said. “It’s not easy music to sing. Some of them have done it for many years, some haven’t. There’s never a perfect performance. There are so many different ways to treat the details in the score!”
Through all the worries that this music director has in staging “Messiah,” there is a love for it that sees her through the process.
Dawson noted that she is moved by the fact that Handel originally composed his “Messiah” as “a charity event and not one single cent went to him.”
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That generosity on the composer’s part also extends to the nature of the music here, because “Messiah” is not a composition in which the chorus is subordinate to the sort of duos or trios in which soloists get to soar. Instead, there is what Dawson described as “a democratic chorus in which every part is audible to the other parts and everybody gets a chance. This is one reason why it is so loved by choruses. They are the heroes, really.”
Reflecting on the spiritually uplifting quality of “Messiah,” Dawson said that “with the times we’re in, this is music that we especially need now.”
Columbia Pro Cantare performs Handel’s “Messiah” on Sunday, Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake, 5460 Trumpeter Road in Columbia. There are a lecture at 6:30 p.m. and a post-concert reception. Advance tickets are $23, $20 for seniors and students; $2 more at the door. Children 15 and under are $10.
Also upcoming is that the Columbia Pro Cantare Chamber Singers perform “A Christmas Noel” concert on Sunday, Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. at Christ Episcopal Church, 6800 Oakland Mills Road in Columbia. This mostly a cappella program features holiday music spanning four centuries. Advance tickets are $15, $13 for seniors and students; $2 more at the door. Children 15 and under are $10.