UMS: This Is Your Messiah / by Doyle Armbrust

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 once-a-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.

The Crossing, Northwestern University Contemporary/Early Music Ensemble

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 non-belief.

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 two-and-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.

Seraphic Fire

Doyle Armbrust: To my mind, you take a really performative approach to Messiah, which includes some liberties that I love, but that are outside what I’ve come to expect as the usual readings of the piece. What does your evolution with this work look like?

Patrick Dupré Quigley: As far as I know, Messiah is the longest, continuously performed orchestral concert-hall piece that we have in the repertoire. It’s the oldest piece that’s never been shelved or regionalized since its premiere. When Handel was alive, there were very few performances in which he didn’t change something, based on the performers or the audience. Unlike Bach, Handel was an impresario, and took on a lot of the financial risk of concerts himself. He was a salesman and a showman, and he wrote pieces like Messiah because Italian opera was going out of fashion in England, and he wanted something to replace the income he was getting from producing these Italian-language operas. He started writing semi-sacred works to be performed in concert halls, which was controversial, even shocking, at the time. The first person who performed the “He Was Despised” movement…not even a singer! She was a Hermione Gingold-type actress who spoke the entire aria at pitch. This was an actress of dubious repute, morally, and a pastor reportedly jumped up at the aria’s conclusion and shouted, “Woman, all your sins are forgiven!” This was not a staid event. This was a replacement for opera. And Italian opera at the time had all sorts of showy, fantastical conventions of ornamentation and cadenzas and dynamics that are not noted in the score. It didn’t need to be, in Handel’s case, because the composer was the producer and was always on hand. For the first performance, there was a small-ish orchestra, a choir of 32, and five soloists. During his lifetime, there were performances that he produced with 1,000 singers and a gigantic orchestra. This is a guy who didn’t care about the purity of the piece, but rather cared about the music of the piece and presenting it in a gripping way that made people sit up and take notice. He wanted to take the best of what he had at the time and wow people with it. He wasn’t going for profundity, he was going for spectacle. My performances start from a place of, “If this were in Italian, where would the cadenza happen?” The approach for Handel was how to touch people through an almost bel canto treatment of the voices in the solo numbers. This was a statement of what voices can do. The things that I’m trying to bring out, what would have been exciting at the time, aren’t necessarily on the page because it didn’t need to be during a seven-night run with plenty of rehearsals and the composer present. It’s impossible to recreate an authentic performance of Messiah. There would be no lights or air conditioning, you’d have to take a carriage to the hall, and the person sitting next to you would have not showered for a month. If that’s the baseline, how do you make someone who is wearing unbearably uncomfortable clothing sitting on a wooden seat…how do you keep their attention? Some of Handel’s productions closed after three nights. But with Messiah and maybe [Handel’s early oratorio] Deborah, there are accounts of students at Oxford selling their furniture in order to buy a ticket. This is rock-star music, not church music. There is a gigantic chasm between the reverence with which we perform Bach, and the playfulness with which we can approach Handel because it’s not liturgical music. It’s music for the theater.

DA: So you’ve thought a little bit about this, then.

PDQ: Yeah.

DA: But when you guest-conduct Messiah at a major orchestra, like San Francisco Symphony, do you find yourself tempering any of those impulses?

PDQ: I may temper how much I ask for specific articulations or non-vibrato, but I don’t change how I dramatically approach the piece. I have a pretty strong sense of how the piece should be performed in a dramatic sense. It’s joyous and explosive and it contains the heights and depths of human emotion.

DA: Given that Seraphic Fire was founded in Miami, which maybe doesn’t have as many entrenched traditions around this music, do you think that you had a unique amount of room to explore your approach?

PDQ: Absolutely. Not only is the Miami audience eager for novelty, I have one of the most diverse audiences in the US. These are listeners ready to listen to Messiah with fresh ears.

DA: For the longer stretches that you’ve presented Messiah year after year, did you ever find yourself in an arms race — with yourself — to get that same adrenaline rush each time?

PDQ: Definitely. I’ll wonder, “What am I going to do this year? How can I make the piece speak on a different level than it did last year?” Every year I might have a different singer, so every year I’m writing new cadenzas based on the strengths of each.

DA: I have to imagine the audience in Boca Raton is quite a bit different than the audience in Fort Lauderdale. What is the ultimate takeaway you’re offering these audiences? Is it the spectacle?

PDQ: To your first point, Messiah is the most oblique telling of this story that’s ever been told, because it’s told mostly through [the book of] Revelation and projections from the Old Testament. My job is to be as true to the original spirit of the piece as I can. People can bring their own experience to the libretto. Our job is to communicate the music in the most exciting and engaging way possible — and not tell people how to feel about it. For some people, our performance may be unsettling because it’s not the way their [Eugene] Ormandy recording sounds. For others, it’s like, “How have I never heard this piece before… how have I only heard the Hallelujah chorus…OMG there’s so much music after the Hallelujah chorus!”

DA: Do you think the dramatic crux of the piece is also the most spectacular?

PDQ: The moment that the drama changes is “He Was Despised” and the three attacca choruses that follow. This is where Messiah becomes not just a great show, but a masterpiece.

SCOTT HANOIAN Music Director and Conductor, UMS Choral Union

Doyle Armbrust: I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that Messiah consistently draws in listeners of all religious persuasions. What is it about this piece that has such a mass appeal, or speaks beyond its specifically sacred text?

Scott Hanoian: I believe there is something in Handel’s Messiah for everyone. For those rooted in the Christian tradition, the relevance of the story is obvious. But for those who simply like a good story, this one has a bit of everything. From the uncertainty of the state of the world painted at the beginning, through the joyful birth, to the brutality of the crucifixion, and the triumphant resurrection — it’s drama at its best.

DA: Can you tell me a little about the experience of walking into a situation in which both the piece (Messiah) and the former conductor have such a long history? What does that balance between how things have been, and how you hope to shape these events, look like?

SH: I had the fortune of inheriting the reins of Choral Union from someone who had brought the group to ever-expanding musical heights and professionalism. As such, I could get right to matters of style, articulation, dynamic preferences, and all those things which are unique to my interpretation. Add to that the Choral Union’s history of singing with multiple conductors in any one season, and you have a phenomenal group of flexible singers ready to do whatever they see in front of them!

DA: I find that conductors often have very different approaches to this piece. Is there a defining characteristic to the way you conduct/produce it?

SH: I suppose if I were to take a step back and analyze my approach, I would say that my first priority is propelling the drama of the work as a whole. That certainly informs matters of tempo, dynamic, and even articulation as you attempt to tell this story to an audience that, for the most part, knows how it ends.

DA: Every listener will have their own experience, but with what do you hope they will leave the hall, for this year’s performance?

SH: That each listener experiences the meaning behind each of the movements. That the choices we make as performers help the audience engage in the meaning and significance of the story. And, most importantly, that they leave not noticing that two-and-a-half hours have just passed!

DA: At any annual event, there are always humorous stories of mishaps, musical or not. Is there one, at UMS or elsewhere, that you’d like to share?

SH: My first year I decided to buy new shoes for the performance. I didn’t notice that they were entirely leather on the bottom. Since I wore them for the first time during the Saturday performance, I didn’t notice that the leather on the shoes wouldn’t be a good match for the carpeted podium. I spent the whole of the intermission outside on the pavement scuffing up the shoes so I wouldn’t be slipping and sliding for the second half!