If there’s one thing choir directors can agree on, it’s that Handel’s “Messiah” is a glorious piece of music.
“I’d sung it before as a baritone,” said Woodrow Bynum, music director of Albany’s Cathedral of All Saints Choir of Men and Boys. “I love both the solos and the choral sections. The libretto is genius. It was so carefully chosen.”
His 32-piece choir and 16-piece Baroque orchestra will perform “Messiah” on Tuesday.
• Cathedral of All Saints Choir of Men and Boys
WHERE: Cathedral of All Saints, 62 S. Swan St., Albany
WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday
HOW MUCH: $40 (reserved); $25, $20, $15, $10
MORE INFO: 800-838-3006, 465-1432; www.albanymessiah.brownpapertickets.com
• Octavo Singers
WHERE: Union College Memorial Chapel
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16
HOW MUCH: $20, $15, $10
MORE INFO: 253-7088; www.octavosingers.com
“My favorite era is the Baroque,” said Curtis Funk the artistic director of Octavo Singers. “I’d sung ‘Messiah’ in college. I love how Handel does word painting and that he takes the human voice and turns it into an instrument and then I can take my chorus and turn it into an orchestra.”
The 115-voice Octavo Singers and 20-piece orchestra will perform “Messiah” on Sunday, Dec. 16 at Union College’s Memorial Chapel.
Unlike many past local chorus performances, when parts of the piece were cut to save time, both choruses are doing the entire work — all 53 sections.
“We’ve done truncated versions, but you need all of them to sell the story,” Funk said.
“When you remove things, you miss part of the story,” he said. “You need to have a cohesive sense to the story to see how all the movements relate.”
The first part of the oratorio sets out God’s plan to redeem the world through a savior and presents the story of the Nativity, which explains why the work is so often presented at Christmas, Bynum said. The second part talks of Christ’s ministry on Earth, his death, resurrection and ascension, which explains why on occasion some choruses perform this section at Easter, especially since the section ends with the famous “Hallelujah!” chorus. The final section touches on his message of redemption, the prediction of the Day of Judgment and the final victory over sin and death.
By the early 1740s, George Frideric Handel was in his 50s and already hugely successful as a composer of operas, cantatas and oratorios. In the summer of 1741, Charles Jennens, his librettist, sent him a new libretto, which was based on passages from the Old and New Testament. Handel liked it, and being a speedy composer used to deadlines for the theater, completed a score in 24 days. That score was “Messiah.”
That winter, Handel visited Dublin at the invitation of the Duke of Devonshire and a few months later arranged a series of subscription concerts, which proved highly successful. When he was approached in March to give a charity concert to benefit prisoners’ debt relief, a hospital and a charitable infirmary, Handel decided to use his “Messiah.”
He received permission from two of the local cathedrals to use their choirs (16 men and 16 boys), and he hired two women to sing the soprano and alto roles. To accommodate these forces and their abilities, he revised his manuscript score. In April 1742, the work was premiered, and was considered a great success, especially for the amount of money that was raised.
Although audience responses were cool at subsequent performances the next year in London, the work slowly gained ground over the next decade. Handel continued to revise or rearrange his score, usually to suit the singers, until his death in 1759. So popular did some of the individual choruses prove, that it became a regular practice to extract them to use as concert pieces.
Over the next 200 years, the work continued to grow in popularity and huge choruses of hundreds of people came to perform it. But traditional cuts became the norm, rather than performing the entire work.
“Using massive numbers of people changed in the mid-20th century,” Bynum said. “It was decided that more intimacy was needed to deliver the texts — what the old man would have intended. Within the last 50 years, we have an accepted version, wonderfully researched, called the Watkins-Shaw version. It takes less than three hours to perform.”
While Bynum’s chorus has only done “Messiah” since 2009 — this will be its fifth time performing it, he said — the Octavo Singers have been performing the work annually for many years.
“When I asked the chorus if they wanted to not do ‘Messiah’ this year, they just never considered not doing it,” Funk said laughing. “We have squatters’ rights to it in Schenectady.”
The work is not easy, although Handel wrote most of it for unprofessional voices. Much of it is very high.
“The boy’s voices are designed to sing those notes,” Bynum said, “but the endurance of singing three- to five-minute choruses is a stretch. And they need to be on point with the story, sometimes commenting or blazing new territory.”
This was new to them initially since they usually get to sit for long periods during regular church services. Since this is a repeat performance, they know what to expect and he can work on more details. He’s also using a Baroque orchestra with a lower tuning, which may help with those high notes. His soloists are crucial to the success since they must also be able to act.
“You want singers who can deliver those ravishing texts and know how to tell a story,” he said.
His soloists are soprano Ava Pine, alto Kirsten Sollek, tenor Michael Slattery, and bass Nathaniel Webster, who makes an annual trip from Germany just to sing this part.
Funk has another issue. He has huge forces that, because of their separation from the orchestra, must listen harder to each other and watch him more intently than usual.
“They must be in step. There is so much distance between the front row of the singers and the back row of the orchestra that it’s like a different ZIP code,” he said.
His soloists are mostly new to the group, part of Funk’s goal to bring in new talent. They are soprano Jennifer Lien, alto Ann-Marie Grathwol, tenor Marty Coyle, and bass Nick Wiggins.
His challenge, as is Bynum’s, is to keep the pace moving.
“I promise to have the audience into the parking lot by 5:20 p.m.,” he said laughing.