The Messiah is coming: Perennial season favorite is showcase for great choral singing
How can something so 18th century almost always sound so new and exciting?
George Frideric Handel’s magnificent oratorio, “Messiah,” just doesn’t get old. Perhaps it’s because of the preponderance of fabulous tunes. Perhaps it’s the suspenseful storyline. Perhaps it’s all that big choral singing.
The piece’s dramatic thrust is mostly provided by the choir, its three parts and many segments neatly divided to accentuate the glorious human voice en masse.
“There is something magical about the piece that makes it always fresh,” said guest conductor Steven Fox, who will direct three performances by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and Chorus this week. “It has the classic attributes of a masterpiece: Each time you discover something new.”
The “Holy City Messiah” programs feature soprano Margaret Kelly Cook, countertenor Ricard Bordas, tenor Oliver Mercer and bass-baritone John Brancy. Art Bumgardner, adjust voice teacher at the College of Charleston and a CSO Chorus regular, prepared the singers for the the big show.
Handel composed the piece in less than a month of furious, inspired scrawling. The first part is a long anticipation of Jesus’ birth, culminating with the chorus’ “For Unto Us a Child is Born.” The second part is about Jesus’ death and resurrection, and reaches its climax with the Hallelujah Chorus. And the final part is about the Last Judgment and the life hereafter.
Because the first two parts are seasonal, referring to Christmas and Easter, the work is most often performed at those holidays. But most of the big public presentations seem to happen around Christmas.
Audiences are content hearing the Hallelujah Chorus in the context of either Christ’s birth or his resurrection.
The voicing is superb, Fox said. It’s challenging to sing, but also much fun, and this probably accounts for some of the excitement it inspires.
“The fact that it’s fun for the performers brings out the joy of the text and the music,” he said.
Rob Taylor, director of the CSO Chorus and director of choral activities at the College of Charleston, agreed, calling the score “ingenious.”
Handel knew how to write for the voice better than Bach, he said. Not that it’s easy to sing. “It’s far from easy. Just because you know the melisma of ‘He Shall Purify’ doesn’t mean it’s in your voice.”
Taylor said that the work’s enduring appeal also can be attributed to good storytelling.
“At end of day, the ‘Messiah’ tells a story in a compelling way that everyone wants to hear. It’s biblically based, fantastic music.”
Fox is no stranger to choral music. He directs the Clarion Society, a baroque orchestra based in New York City and has specialized in early and Russian music. Both feature the voice prominently, whether in the form of European opera and oratorio or that big basso sound of a Russian chorus.
Handel’s “Messiah,” which he’s conducted once before, is a work that thrills all involved, performer and listener alike, he said.
“It’s the kind of piece that brings people together.”
Hansel & Gretel
While he’s in town, Fox also will conduct five performances of “Hansel & Gretel,” a semi-staged, family-friendly version with music by Engelbert Humperdinck that stars soprano Elizabeth Hott as Gretel, mezzo-soprano Maria Elena Armijo as Hansel and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Luiken as the Witch.
The Charleston Symphony production, presented at the Dock Street Theatre, also features the Charleston Children’s Chorus, directed by Charles Benesh.
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