What’s your favorite number in Messiah? For me, nothing tops “Since By Man Came Death” (number 46). It levels me every time. Not only is the chorus singing a cappella for the only moment in the entire piece — which is totally harrowing — those suspensions and harmonic shifts have me instantly dabbing at the corners of my eyes whether it’s a world-class ensemble singing, or my aunt’s oncea-week volunteer church choir having at it. There’s something singular, something supremely special about this piece, right?
You know how if you hop on a treadmill at the gym, the person next to you gets subtly, though immediately, competitive with your pace? For gigging musicians, their version of this is asking the question, “How many Messiahs are you playing this year?” The truth is, it can be a bit of a slog, but don’t worry, you’re at one of the good ones.
In considering and reconsidering this landmark work, it occurs to me that my two most memorable performances took place with music directors who approach it quite differently — not only the music itself, but their reading of the text and its historical context. Like all of my favorite films/paintings/dances/ sculptures, Messiah is one of those pieces that makes room for one’s personal experience with it. It may solidify your sacred convictions, or light up that part of your brain that thrives on vocal virtuosity, or simply bring you the comfort that only an old friend can. Whatever the case, I share my experiences with two world-class choral conductors to both offer you an (perhaps) unfamiliar perspective, but also to affirm that wherever your brain and your heart go during this performance, it’s the right place.
Doyle Armbrust: Of all the Messiahs I’ve done over the years, there are two that were actually memorable, and one of those was with you at Northwestern last year.
Donald Nally: I’m hoping that it was memorable for good reasons.
DA: Actually this is a huge take-down piece. Did I not mention that?
DN: Yeah. Thanks.
DA: Seriously, though, I recall that you had a very humanist take on the piece. DN: Well, I’m a non-believer. I tend to look at everything with a universal approach. I make music based on what I see as a need for spirituality, and a need for connectivity — the things that drive us toward ritual and structure, which are the things that a liturgy provides. So for me, when I approach pieces set in the Old or New Testaments, they always read in a humanistic, “Who are we?” way. I’m not interested in doing museum pieces. I don’t want to pick up Messiah and say, “This is how this piece is supposed to go, children.” I want to pick it up and ask, “What does this mean to us in 2017?” The fact that it’s good music is not reason enough for me to perform it.
DA: In rehearsal, we get to talk about these sorts of choices — but what is your hope for how much of that reaches the audience in performance?
DN: One of my strongest beliefs is that we should never tell the audience what to feel. Put the composer in front of the audience as purely as you can, and leave it at that. I don’t think great music needs explanation. I want the audience to follow the flow — the logic that Handel conceived that they would.
DA: So your hope is that the audience has whatever emotional experience they walk into the hall with, whether that be from a place of belief or nonbelief.
DN: Yeah, I do. Their own context is going to greatly affect how they receive it. Take the pacing of the piece. Handel conceived of it in scenes which he carefully labeled with titles. Unfortunately, the publishers don’t include those scenes in the score. That’s a shame, because that’s the primary clue to its construction, in terms of how the numbers are grouped together. How you move through a given scene will greatly affect how the scene will be heard, just like in opera. So hopefully we can provide enough space that the listener will engage with it on their own terms.
DA: Do you remember the first time you conducted Messiah?
DN: I had a group back in the 1990s called the Bridge Ensemble, which was the prototype for The Crossing. You name any mistake one can make when starting a group, and I made it, and I’m grateful for that because I didn’t repeat those mistakes when I started The Crossing. We did Messiah, and I remember sitting back and thinking, “Let’s pretend this piece was just written and I don’t know anything about it. Handel has just sent me the score. Where do I begin with this twoand-a-half-hour piece?” You begin to answer questions in a really practical way, and speed and length have a lot to do with it. I also performed it in Wales, and that was interesting because they are accustomed to a very traditional approach. [Adopting a British accent] You wait for each soloist to rise, and the harpsichord rrrrolls the chord, and they eNUNciate. That one was a real journey.
DA: Back to your performance with The Bridge, though, was this humanist reading of the piece already in place then?
DN: That’s been a part of my musicmaking for decades.
DA: Is there a part of Messiah that you think is the pivot point or crux of the emotional drama?
DN: Handel lived during a time of friction between the humanists and the pietists, and in Messiah he focuses a lot on the persecution of Jesus. The “Hallelujah” chorus is obviously the most iconic of any chorus, but personally I think everything leads up to the final aria. There’s almost nothing going on. It’s basically a trio sonata of unison violins, continuo, and voice, and the singer says, “He makes intercession for us.” Everything that came before, all this stuff about your life? If you remember that this paternal figure is in your life, then nothing else matters and you can bear anything. It’s a very calculated and calculating moment. You hear the singer repeating, over and over, “Who makes intercession for us, who makes intercession for us…”
DA: For you as a non-believer, how does that translate?
DN: We all desire connectivity and to know that we are secure. Religion is that answer for some people, but not for me. I either have to find that in myself or in my community. Creating a trusted community around me is fundamental. You know, you’re sitting there in an audience of 600 people and you don’t know 598 of them. You’re all listening to the same piece, and probably along the way you are going to reach some understanding about human nature and the value of recognizing your human-ness in other people. Messiah does that regardless of how you approach it. That’s why you buy the ticket. To me, that’s the whole point of why we make art.