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It's not Christmas without 'Messiah'

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.

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"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.

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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."

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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."

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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.

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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.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on St. John's Lane in Ellicott City also chose the sing-along format. But cultural arts director Angela McGhie said the chorus sticks to the first part and then break for refreshments.

"For people that haven't done the classical music so much, an hour is enough," she said.

Columbia Pro Cantare director Frances Motayca Dawson said she was planning to avoid performing a Christmastime Messiah, but her singers persuaded her to do it 23 years ago, and the tradition has stuck.

Current member Christine Schmitz of Sykesville called Messiah "the top pick of singers and audiences, certainly the most well-known."

"It's a real challenge to sing because of the runs [of short notes in quick succession]," she said.

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A CPA who once studied music at Peabody Institute, she is like many of the amateur singers who tackle Messiah every year. "I didn't make music my full-time career," she said. "The Pro Cantare is an outlet to do large, major works."

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society appears to be one the few classical vocal groups bucking the trend. They are not performing Messiah, although director Tom Hall has conducted the piece 75 times, often as a guest.

He has not escaped the public's desire for Handel completely, though. He still plans to use the "Hallelujah chorus" to end the groups' televised holiday concert.

"I would be very surprised if people could find another piece of classical music that gets as many performances as Messiah does," he said. "It's a phenomenon all over the world."

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

Performances of Handel's 'Messiah'

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The Handel Choir of Baltimore

Today, 8 p.m. Pre-concert lecture, 7 p.m.

Grace United Methodist Church, Northern Parkway and Charles Street, Baltimore

Information and tickets: www.handelchoir.org or 410-366-6544

Maryland Chorus

Today, 8 p.m. and Sunday, 3 p.m.

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Clarice Smith Center, University of Maryland, College Park

Information and tickets: www.music.umd.edu or 301-405-2787

Columbia Pro Cantare

Tomorrow, 7:30 p.m. Pre-concert lecture, 6:30 p.m.

Jim Rouse Theater, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia

Information and tickets: www.procantare.org or 301-854-0107

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Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Free sing-along

Tomorrow, 6 p.m.

4100 St. John's Lane, Ellicott City

Information: 240-568-0881.

Concert Artists of Baltimore Symphonic Chorale and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

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Dec. 9, 7:30 p.m.

Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St., Baltimore

Information: www.baltimoresymphony.org or 410-783-8000.

Annapolis Chorale

Dec. 15, candlelight concert, 8 p.m.

Dec. 16, MusicWorks concert with high school students, 8 p.m.

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Dec. 17, family-friendly concert, 3 p.m.

St. Anne's Episcopal Church, Church Circle, Annapolis

Information and tickets: www.annapolischorale.org or 410-280-5640

Central Maryland Chorale

Concert and sing-along

Dec. 16, 8 p.m.

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Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, 12367 Scaggsville Road, Highland

Tickets: Dana Raitt, 301-317- 9646, ylobtrfly@verizon.net


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