Handel with flair

The Baltimore Sun

Comfort ye who prefer Handel's Messiah just the way it was written in 1741. The version of the beloved oratorio being performed this weekend by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Morgan State University Choir may seem as if it has gone astray like sheep at first, but ev'ry worry is bound to be made low once the familiar music starts exalting to a new beat.

Billed as Too Hot to Handel and subtitled "The Gospel Messiah," this kinetic reworking of a baroque masterpiece refashions the music through several contemporary styles - jazz, R&B; and rock, as well as gospel. It's all the brainchild of BSO music director Marin Alsop, who got the idea about two decades ago while improvising on some of Bach's solo violin works (she's an accomplished violinist).

"They swing so well," Alsop says. "So I started thinking about other pieces that would lend themselves to being hipified."

That led her to consider Messiah and to contact two of her arranger friends, Gary Anderson and Bob Christianson. "They thought I was crazy, like everyone does," Alsop says. "But they divvied up the oratorio and did the arrangements. Gary is more jazz-oriented, Bob more pop- and R&B-oriented.; It worked out fantastically well."

In 1993, Alsop led the first performance of Too Hot to Handel at New York's Lincoln Center with the Concordia Orchestra that she founded in the 1980s.

"As fate would have it, we were the choir she chose for the premiere," says Eric Conway, director of the Morgan State ensemble, "and we did it for another five or six years straight with her in New York."

Conway was an assistant to the choir's legendary founder, Nathan Carter, at the time of that premiere. "I've never taught the piece before," he says, "and the current choir has never sung it before. But they've enjoyed learning it."

Although the entire Messiah score isn't used in Too Hot to Handel, a great deal of the oratorio is packed into it.

"The arrangements preserve the DNA and structure of the original," Alsop says. "The text is all the same, and the melodies are basically the same. Everything else is different. The orchestration is blown out of the water."

Added to traditional orchestral instruments are saxophones and a hefty rhythm section that incorporates electric guitar and bass, a Hammond organ (Christianson will be the organist for the BSO performances) and drums.

"I think Handel would have philosophically approved of the idea," Alsop says. "I don't feel too guilty," she adds, noting that no less than Mozart did his own arrangement of Messiah.

Jessica Nelson, a second-year graduate student at Morgan and a member of the choir's first soprano section, needs no convincing.

"I love to sing the original Messiah and I love to sing this," says Nelson, who has performed Too Hot to Handel with other ensembles. "One of the best things about being a musician is that things aren't always the same. The [Anderson/Christianson] arrangements are kind of cool. In my opinion, they don't stray too, too far from the original. I love the different spins on it, the different rhythms and melodic lines."

A similar note is struck by Marvin Carr, a Morgan State senior who sings with the first tenors. "There's a lot going on in the piece, and I can respect what the arrangers have done," he says.

But Carr points out one potential problem - keeping the well-known version and the Too Hot adaptation separate in his head. "It's going to be really difficult, because I'm going to be doing Messiah at my home church in Detroit," he says.

Conway has considered that difficulty, too. "Those singers who know the original have a better appreciation for the arrangements in Too Hot to Handel," the director says, "but the trick is not to revert to the original in performance."

The choristers have other things on their minds these days - exams.

"As much as the public loves them as artists, they really are students," Conway says. Then there is the choir's own Christmas concert to prepare for (on Dec. 14).

But, over the years, the Morgan choir always seems to pull through strongly, no matter what the pressures, delivering potent performances that delight longtime fans and earn fresh ones. A new fan of the ensemble is country music star Faith Hill, who heard the choir at Carnegie Hall earlier this year.

"She has really been embracing the choir," Conway says.

Hill invited the group to join her in New York last week for performances on the Today show and the Late Show with David Letterman to promote her new Christmas album. "That was a blast," says Conway. The choir also sang during the Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center.

Alsop's own history of embracing the choir includes a previous Baltimore presentation of Too Hot to Handel that she conducted with the Morgan singers and the BSO in December 2002.

But that was "a little bit of a misfire," she says. "It was a bummer week because of the weather." Snow kept attendance down, a threat not expected this time around.

"Working with Marin again is going to be great," Carr says. "She does something with music as a conductor that few people can. Performing [Leonard Bernstein's] Mass with her was awesome."

That challenging Bernstein work was cheered by packed houses in Baltimore, Washington and New York in October, and the Morgan choir's contributions played a significant role in that production's success.

"Marin Alsop makes you get to the soul of the piece and feel it, just as she feels it," Nelson says.

Conway agrees. "We would never say no to any opportunity to work with such a great musician," he says. "Mass was a very spiritual experience for us."

In its own way, Too Hot to Handel promises to deliver a dose of spirituality this weekend, not to mention energy.

Helping to provide those qualities will be the guest artists handling the transformed arias - noted vocalist Vaneese Thomas (daughter of the late R&B; singer Rufus Thomas), Broadway musical veteran Rozz Morehead and tenor Thomas Young.

"The solos can make the piece feel very gospel-like," Conway says. (Those solos will be taken by Morgan choristers during the BSO's abridged version of the piece at Saturday morning's Family Concert.)

The gospelized, R&B-inflected;, rock-pulsing Messiah may not fulfill all of Alsop's original intentions - "The ultimate goal is getting people turned on to Handel," she says - but its proven appeal to diverse audiences has led to a variety of orchestras and choirs around the country performing it over the past 15 years. And the work clearly exerts a strong pull on performers.

"There's a funk and a groove to it, and a really exciting feeling while you're singing it," Nelson says. "It is so much fun."

IF YOU GO

Too Hot to Handel will be performed at 8 tonight at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. (tickets are $20 to $60) and 8 p.m. tomorrow at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda (tickets are $25 to $80). An abridged version of the work will be performed during a Family Concert at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Meyerhoff (tickets are $12 to $20). Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.

online

To hear clips from Too Hot to Handel, go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost

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