Music News & Reviews

Performances of 'Messiah' go back to its baroque origins

Christ Church Cathedral performs Messiah on a larger scale than its regular repertoire, but that's still smaller than what other groups do.
Christ Church Cathedral performs Messiah on a larger scale than its regular repertoire, but that's still smaller than what other groups do.

People are used to hearing George Frideric Handel's Messiah, particularly the iconic Hallelujah Chorus, as a full-force gale of heavenly hosts declaring, "The Lord God omnipotent reigneth."

But that's not how Messiah's original audiences heard it, and that's not how some of Lexington's most prominent Messiah performances will be presented this year.

Performances of the oratorio by the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra and Christ Church Cathedral's will be church-based, with smaller, baroque-style orchestras and choruses.

"That's what the composer wants, and I think people forget that," says Philharmonic music director Scott Terrell, who will conduct Messiah on Thursday at Tates Creek Presbyterian Church and Friday at Calvary Baptist. "What we are doing is not outside the realm of normalcy."

This is the second year the Philharmonic has presented Messiah as a smaller piece in area churches after years of an all-hands-on-deck presentation in the Singletary Center for the Arts. But a smaller version has always been the way Messiah has been presented at Christ Church Cathedral, with its choirs and baroque ensemble.

"This is a continuation of what our choristers do throughout the year," says Christ Church music director Erich Balling, who will conduct Messiah there Friday night. "So in our repertoire, this is what we are singing every Sunday, but we get to do it on a larger scale and share it with the community."

People seeking a bigger Messiah can look forward to the Lexington Singers' presentation Dec. 18 at the Singletary Center.

Balling, Terrell and baroque music scholar Joseph Pitchon, who will serve as concertmaster for the Christ Church performance, say there are very good reasons to listen to the scaled-down presentations.

"I don't want to put down large orchestral versions, because they are wonderful in themselves," Pitchon says from Spingfield, Mass., where he teaches at Smith College. "But this is a different sort of sonority. It is lighter and more detailed because of the way we do it. The kinds of articulations we are able to do are very much with an eye toward the text."

Terrell says part of his goal in presenting this smaller version of Messiah is to take it closer to dance music.

"Baroque music is more or less dance music in its truest form," Terrell says. "The scaling of forces really allows the music to breathe and move."

Both of the smaller local versions of Messiah are trying to draw closer to the original, but neither claims to take listeners back to 1742, the year of Messiah's first performances.

"I, at least at Christ Church, have not endeavored to use baroque strings, for example, where the players use gut instead of metal" strings on their instruments, Balling says. "That would be an intriguing possibility at some point."

Pitchon notes that a truly authentic performance would also use shorter bows for the stringed instruments and other unique instruments like baroque oboes.

"There is a different quality to the string sound — one might describe it as more reedy because of the quality of the pure gut," Pitchon says of authentic performances. "There is a lighter articulation in the bowing. The bow that we use was invented to have more of a sustained quality."

Despite the similarities between the performances this week, there are differences within them. For instance, Christ Church will use boys and girls for the higher choral parts instead of women. Men — countertenors, tenors and basses — will sing the alto, tenor and bass parts.

Christ Church and the Philharmonic will use a countertenor soloist instead of a mezzo-soprano this year. The Philharmonic has traditionally used a mezzo in the role though.

"A countertenor adds a lightness and color, and in some ways an edge to the vocal quality that is normally sung by a mezzo," Terrell says. "I go back and forth. I like both a countertenor and a mezzo. That would be this year's major difference."

While neither production claims to be completely historically accurate, both think their presentations are historically informed and put the focus on the text of Handel's statement of faith.

"What we are trying to do is use the best of historical information to give a sense of the color and the character, not in the sense that we want to be more right than other people," Pitchon says. "But what we want to do is find a way to bring the best expression of the work that we can."

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