Music News & Reviews

Philharmonic revamps its 'Messiah' by scaling back

Philharmonic Director Scott Terrell says the scaled-down version is closer to what it would have sounded like in the 18th century.
Philharmonic Director Scott Terrell says the scaled-down version is closer to what it would have sounded like in the 18th century. Lexington Herald-Leader

When it comes to George Frideric Handel's Messiah, what's old is indeed new for the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.

In his second year as music director, Scott Terrell is giving the philharmonic's presentation of the holiday staple a radical makeover. He's taking the oratorio out of the Singletary Center for the Arts' concert hall, where it has been performed in Lexington for more than two decades, and presenting it with a much smaller chorus than the 100-plus-voice Lexington Singers, who have traditionally sung the piece.

The performance, with the 40 voices of the Lexington Chamber Chorale, will be Thursday and Friday at the Cathedral of Christ the King under a crucifix depicting the Messiah.

The change has come with its awkward moments. Besides the switching of choruses, a scheduling conflict has put two Messiah concerts on the same night.

For Terrell, the changes are meant to bring new vibrance to the Philharmonic's Messiah, which has essentially been performed the same way for more than 20 years, and express his vision for the work, which is closer to how it was originally presented in the 18th century and heightens its drama.

"I think the piece takes on a different character when it's moved into a cathedral-like space," Terrell said. "That would have been the vision of the piece when it was conceived, where the room actually heightens the text.

"I have only done it in cathedral spaces, and I have actually sat and listened to it in both a concert hall and in a church ... and as a listener, I thought there was no comparison to sit in and hear the work when it has the ability to play off a cathedral kind of room."

In addition to fulfilling Terrell's goal of delivering a Messiah in keeping with his artistic vision, the conductor said, this production also achieves goals of working with new collaborators in the chamber chorale and taking the orchestra further into the community.

For the chamber chorale, Messiah is a huge opportunity.

"This is an opportunity for us to play to a much larger audience and perform some music we have not performed before," said chorale Director Gary Anderson. "It will strengthen us as musicians."

The philharmonic musicians say they also enjoy the chance to get into a different venue and play a familiar work in a new way.

"This is a great place to play in and a great way to play it," violist Joseph Baber said Tuesday night as he prepared for rehearsal at Christ the King. "I hope our audience likes it."

Thus far, Terrell said, the audience has seemed to be interested in the new Messiah: Tickets have outpaced last year's sales for the performance, which usually sells out or comes close in the 1,500-seat Singletary Center. With two performances at Christ the King, which holds about 900 people, the orchestra actually has about 1,800 tickets to sell for Messiah this year.

But the change has brought some consternation.

There has been a smaller-scale, 18th-century-style Messiah presentation in Lexington almost as long as the philharmonic's concert-hall version: at Christ Church Cathedral. And this year's Christ Church concert is Friday night, the same time as the philharmonic's second performance.

Terrell said the scheduling conflict is regrettable but unavoidable with the many holiday events on the orchestra's and other groups' calendars.

"I am really focused on doing what we do well and our own idea of Messiah," Christ Church's canon musician, Erich Balling, said when asked about the conflict. "I believe Lexington is big and broad enough to support a number of ideas about this work."

While both the philharmonic's and Christ Church's renditions are smaller-scale versions that are closer to the 18th-century original, Balling said there are differences. The Christ Church concert will employ the church's boys and girls choirs for soprano parts and a small ensemble of musicians. All the philharmonic and chamber chorale's vocals will handled by adults.

"The only place you will see this sort of presentation is New York or Washington, where the community can support this type of choral tradition," Balling said.

The choral tradition for the philharmonic's Messiah has been the Lexington Singers. When Terrell decided to use a smaller choir, the Singers were invited to come with a scaled-down group. But Singers Director Johnson said, "Everybody in the Singers wants to be in Messiah."

So, he said, the Singers declined the invitation to perform with the philharmonic this year. They will perform their own Messiah on Dec. 19, in a format like the philharmonic's old, large-scale productions.

"It's going to be grander than ever," Johnson said of the Singers' rendition, which will include members of several area church choirs in addition to the Singers. "We're doing large-scale Messiah, and I think there's a place for both."

As the flagship arts organization in Lexington, the philharmonic has always presented the marquee version of Messiah, and it has drawn the biggest crowds. With its reimagined rendition, Terrell said, he thinks the audience will hear nuances and details in the work that are easily lost in its larger versions, which were the typical way the piece was presented in the 20th century.

"Why it's a great piece is, you discover something new every time you play it," Terrell said. "And when you put it in this context, it becomes a very different piece altogether. It's like you're coming at it with a new set of ears."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader