Handel’s “Messiah” and December go together with a welcome familiarity. This year there are two performances: on Sunday afternoon it’s the 110 voices of the Octavo Singers; on Tuesday night it’s a period performance with the Cathedral of All Saints Choir of Men and Boys as Handel might have heard it.
While both organizations will do the entire oratorio, which Handel wrote in a little over three weeks in 1741, they will sound different.
“We’re using A-415, which is a half step lower than current pitch at A-440,” said Woodrow Bynum, the director and conductor for the Cathedral performance. “That’s typical to Baroque and it’s the perfect pitch for the Baroque instruments to adjust to.”
A chamber-size orchestra of period instruments will accompany the Choir’s 30 singers and the four soloists: soprano Sarah Yanovitch, alto Emily Marvosh, tenor Ruairi Bowen, and bass Nathaniel Webster.
In contrast, the Octavo Singers will use a 15-piece modern instrument orchestra that is tuned to current pitch.
“The higher pitch makes the sopranos work,” said director Curtis Funk with a laugh. “Handel put his ranges up there and even the tenors have to hit a high A.”
For the Octavo performance, the soloists are soprano Gene Leonard, alto Ann Marie Adamick, tenor Tim Reno, and Bynum, who sings as bass.
This will be the eleventh “Messiah” for Bynum and about the twentieth for Funk. Both agree that although some groups make cuts in the work, which generally runs close to three hours, it’s necessary to do it all.
“We do it from cover to cover,” Funk said. “You need to do that if you want to tell the story.”
Bynum said he’ll also be using quicker tempos.
“Everything is borne out of the text,” he said. “It’s all about story telling. It’s a brilliant text and you want all those words.”
Handel (1685-1759) had already written a string of successful operas, instrumental works and 11 oratorios when Charles Jennings, his favorite librettist, sent him some texts based loosely on the life and death of Jesus. Handel turned these bits into an exultant expression. The work premiered April 13, 1742 in Dublin as part of a commission to raise funds for three local charities that included debtors’ prisoners and a hospital. Handel used a chorus of 16 men, 16 boys and two women soloists. The work quickly gained in popularity and has never been out of the classic repertory.
Bynum has also learned over the years that many of his instrumentalists and even his soloists sign up for the gig because they like working with his boys.
“They love this ‘Messiah’ because of what the boys bring to the table and because Baroque instruments work really well with boys’ voices,” he said.
The boys, too, who sing liturgy weekly look forward to the Handel. One in particular has sung it at three different vocal ranges.
“This will be my eleventh ‘Messiah,” said Paul Howard, a senior at La Salle Institute. “I started at 8 as a boy soprano, then when my voice changed, I transitioned to alto. Now I’m 18 and am a bass and a Young Gentleman.”
As his voice changed, he said he had to relearn his part, which was similar in some ways but was often tricky in its differences. Singing the high notes at the Baroque pitch as a soprano was manageable but the lower phrases were more difficult. As a bass, he’s more comfortable.
“The three ranges gave me a different sense of the piece... more intimate,” Howard said. “I love it and am amazed at its deep complexity and that always something new grabs my attention and focus.”
IF YOU GO:
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2
WHERE: Union College Memorial Chapel
HOW MUCH: $30 - $20
MORE INFO: 518-273-7088; www.octavosingers.org
Cathedral of All Saints
WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4
WHERE: Cathedral of All Saints, 62 South Swan Street, Albany
HOW MUCH: $45 - $15; $10, 12 and under
MORE INFO: 800-838-3006; www.cathedralofallsaints.org