Rob Gebelhoff

The Holy Sound of Christmas

Handel’s Messiah has been packing them in for 270 years, and the MSO’s version should be no different.

By - Dec 19th, 2013 11:00 am
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Handel’s Messiah has been packing them in for 270 years, and the MSO’s version should be no different. 

Christopher Seaman returns to Milwaukee to lead the MSO in performing Handel's Messiah at three local churches. Photo credit Walter Colley.

Christopher Seaman returns to Milwaukee to lead the MSO in performing Handel’s Messiah at three local churches. Photo credit Walter Colley.

When George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” premiered in 1742, people clamored to see it at the Dublin Musick Hall. So many people flooded the theater that the management pled with women to wear dresses “without Hoops” so there would be “Room for more company.”

Some 270 years later, the piece is still one of the most popular works in Western music. The “Hallelujah” chorus is almost synonymous with the classical Christmas repertoire, as it is performed constantly during the holiday season by musicians around the world, including the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

“Many people write a piece off because it’s popular — that’s total snobbery,” says Christoper Seaman, the guest conductor who will lead the MSO in performing the piece this week. “Most popular pieces are popular because they’re good, and that’s certainly the case with Messiah.”

The MSO performed the first of five concerts Wednesday that celebrates Handel’s Messiah at the St. Mary Faith Community. The other four concerts, which will take place from Thursday to Sunday, will feature the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and a team of excellent soloists: Caitlin Lynch (soprano), Leah Wool (mezzo soprano), Randall Umstead (tenor) and Jonathan Lasch (bass-baritone).

“I think everybody identifies with the theme of Messiah,” Seaman says. “There’s a certain feel-good element. It does deal with a couple thorny issues like life and death, but it ends up on the positive side.”

The oratorio was written as a thought-provoking exercise into the life and teachings of Jesus. Its libretto was constructed by a friend of Handel, Charles Jennens, whose deep knowledge of the Bible provided inspired him to write the powerful and hopeful messages of Messiah. The text includes excerpts from the Bible, particularly from the book of Psalms.

Seaman notes that on top of Jennens’ brilliant libretto, Handel’s experience writing operas brought a kind of depth and drama to the familiar story of Christ. Handel was especially skilled in a technique called text painting, in which composers write music to mimic the contents of the lyrics.

“Handel wrote it to convey the spirituality of the text,” Seaman says. “He wanted people to get it.”

This is evident throughout Messiah, but specifically in the movement titled “Comfort Ye My People,” when the strings soften to accompany the reassuring words sung by the tenor. In contrast, the movement titled “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion” features staccato and an up-beat tempo (alongside a very challenging soprano solo).

Similarly Handel reserves the trumpets for the most uplifting moments in the piece. Although the thrilling blare of the brass has become the iconic sound of Messiah, it is used very sparingly, such as in the Hallelujah chorus and the final choruses, “Worthy is the Lamb” and “Amen.”

Handel’s Messiah exemplifies the vivid style of composition characteristic of the Baroque period. It also shows why Handel achieved such stardom during his life.

The work is long, however, and is often trimmed. “Everything in the work is gem,” Seaman says. “But we can’t do all the gems or we’ll be there all night.”

The three-part work, which consists of over 50 movements, can last up to two and a half hours if performed in full (making it remarkable that it took Handel only 24 days to complete the composition). Seaman said the Christmas concert will focus on the first part of Messiah, which follows the prophesy of Christ’s birth and the Nativity.

Seaman suggests following along with the text during the concert, which he says will enhance the deeper meaning of the work. Lucky for the audience, the piece is one of Handel’s few written in English. And of course, the singers enunciate the words with extreme clarity, so it should not be difficult to follow, even without the words printed in front of the audience.

“It is all great music,” Seaman says. “On one level, it is a wonderful evening, but on another level, it gets across something very important that mattered a great deal to Handel.”

Although Seaman says he enjoys the entirety of Messiah, he points to one movement that he finds particularly inspiring, “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.”

“I look to accomplish what Handel probably wanted to accomplish: that people be uplifted by the music and given a profound inner hope,” Seaman says.

The concerts will take place at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19-21 and at 4 p.m. on Dec. 22. The concerts on Dec. 19 and 20 will take place at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist and the concerts on Dec. 21 and 22 will take place at the Basilica of St. Josaphat. The final two concerts are sold out, but tickets for the concert as St. John are available at the MSO’s website or at (414) 291-7605.

Other concerts this week:

“Home for the Holidays” by the Florentine Opera

The Florentine Opera will add to the Christmas music season in Milwaukee with its “Home for the Holidays” concert, which features a program filled with popular carols and other winter tunes.

The concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 20 at the Florentine Opera Center. Single ticket prices start at $15 and can be purchased at the company’s website or by calling (414) 291-5700 (ext. 224).

“Rejoice!” by the Master Singers of Milwaukee

Milwaukee audiences can venture beyond the borders of the city to join the Master Singers of Milwaukee in Brookfield, which will combine different music genres into a full holiday concert. The performance will also feature a guest choir from the Milwaukee High School of the Arts, led by its director, Raymond Roberts.

The concert will begin at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 21 at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts. Tickets are $18, and there are discounts for students and seniors. Tickets are available at the door or at the center’s webite.

Pius XI High School choir concert at the Basilica

The Pius XI High School Choir will share the traditional music of the Christmas season created by Pope Pius XI at the Basilica of St. Josaphat.

The concert will begin at 7 p.m. on Dec. 20. Tickets are $8 with discounts for students and seniors. They are available at the high school’s website or by calling (414) 290-0204.

Categories: Classical, Music

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