SCHENECTADY — If it’s December, it’s time for Handel’s “Messiah.” This year the Octavo Singers will perform the oratorio on Saturday, Dec. 9, at Union College’s Memorial Chapel.
“December is traditionally the time for singing carols, giving and getting presents, visiting family and friends and being immersed in celebration and happiness,” said Octavo director Curtis Funk. “The ‘Messiah’ resonates with Christmastime because it’s just such joyous and beautiful music.”
Its seasonal popularity is also because the music chronicles the birth of Christ, his death and the resurrection and it is sung in English.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was a well-established composer living in London who had already written a string of highly successful operas, instrumental works and eleven oratorios when his favorite librettist Charles Jennens set him some text in July 1741 based on the Messiah. Handel began work that August and completed the three parts of the oratorio in 24 days — not an unusual amount of time for him but still remarkable considering the entire composition takes almost three hours to perform.
“It’s like a Baroque opera,” said bass Richard Mazzaferro, who has sung “Messiah” more than 20 times. “It’s like Christmas bells. It’s over the top. People are in the mood for that during the holidays. They’re ready to party.”
For this performance, Octavo enlarges from its usual number of about 100 singers to 125 singers, some of whom don’t stay for the rest of the chorus’ season. Having more singers poses a challenge to Funk.
“It’s one thing to commit to five ‘Messiah’ rehearsals as opposed to forty all-season rehearsals,” Funk said, “but I have a responsibility to get the same sound ideal at every one of my concerts. That’s difficult to do when the group swells. I also tend to take tempos a little brisker and with 125 singers — even if they’re watching me like a hawk, there’s a tendency to drag.”
Soprano Diane Deacon, who has been a member of Octavo since 2008, said she enjoys having so many singers.
“I can enjoy listening to the other parts,” she said.
Technically, the vocal parts are very do-able, but having performed “Messiah” several times already, she said, she finds revisiting the piece interesting.
“I always find something new,” Deacon said.
Audience members often comment on how long the chorus must stand to sing. While that might call for some level of physical durability, it doesn’t match what the four soloists must possess.
“The big challenge is that the arias are long and you have to deliver the goods,” Mazzaferro said. “You need pacing and endurance. To give 100 percent, I work out regularly and step up my cardio. I also have to sell what I sing and try to get a sense of what the composer was trying to tell. ‘Messiah’ is a great piece of drama.”
There will be four soloists: soprano Jean Leonard; mezzo-soprano Ann Adamick: tenor John Spinelli; bass Woodrow Bynum and a 20-piece orchestra.
Because the text is in English, there are several ways listeners can better hear the work. Funk recommends reading the text before it’s performed because Handel did a lot of word painting. For instance, when the tenor sings about mountains and hills, the music rises and falls. When the soprano sings about angels, the strings play fast, light passages to simulate the angel’s beating wings.
Deacon suggested people “let the music wash over you and not to concentrate on each word.” Mazzaferro agreed saying that the text was a “road map” to the story but also just to give “yourself over to the music.”
“This is not high falutin music,” he said. “Get caught up in the story. Let the music carry you along. Let your brain be teased by what’s going on. There are melodies galore.”
- “Messiah” premiered in 1742 in Dublin as a fundraiser for three charities. The score was published in 1767.
- Original chorus numbered 16 men, 16 boys, with two women soloists.
- Audiences traditionally stand for the “Hallelujah Chorus” supposedly because King George II did so at the London premiere.
- Inscription on Handel’s tombstone: “I know that My Redeemer Liveth” — a line from the soprano’s aria in Part III.
If you go
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9
WHERE: Union College Memorial Chapel
HOW MUCH: $30-$25
MORE INFO: 518-253-7088; www.octavosingers.com