Saturday, December 3, 2011

All Hail Handel's Messiah!

It is the time of year for pilgrimages to concert halls around the country for a performance of Handel's beloved oratorio, Messiah.  If you scan the arts listings for almost any community with either an orchestra or choir or both at this time of year, there is bound to be a performance of Messiah somewhere.  But how often do you even think of Messiah at Easter, much less see a performance at Easter?

This is the odd history of arguably Handel's most famous work.  He wrote it between August and September 1741, based on a libretto supplied by clergyman and writer Charles Jennens, who had been trying to persuade Handel to return to English oratorio following his last two Italian operas, which were poorly received.  An offer to participate in a season of oratorio performances in Dublin, Ireland the following year provided the impetus Handel needed to return to a musical form he knew very well.

So it was Messiah, based on the birth and Passion of Christ, premiered at the New Music Hall in Dublin on April 13th, 1742, with revisions coming in 1745 for the famous Foundling Hospital performances.  It remained immensely popular until his death in 1758 and has been a standard-bearer for Christmas performances the world over to this very day.  The sacred, non-dramatic oratorio was a first for Handel, with a text divided by Jennens into three parts:  the first deals with the Prophecy of the Messiah and its fulfillment.  The second goes from the Passion to the triumph of the Resurrection and the final part deals with the role of the Messiah in life after death.

Around these parts, we have the advantage of two choirs who perform Messiah regularly.  Chorus Niagara performs the work every other year at Christmas, with Artistic Director Robert Cooper wisely choosing to leave you wanting alternate years so he can create another Christmas program to fill the seats.  However, those who need their Messiah fix every year can catch a performance during those alternate years with Laura Thomas' choir, Choralis Camerata, as is the case this year.

Robert Cooper is leading the Niagara Symphony and Chorus Niagara next weekend in a Christmas programme at Centre for the Arts, Brock University, as the two groups join forces again on the stage of the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre.  I will write more about those performances next week, but this weekend, your Messiah fix is provided by Choralis Camerata with two performances.  The first is tonight at 7:30 at First Grantham United Church in north St. Catharines; the second is tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 at the modern and expansive St. Alexander Roman Catholic Church in Fonthill.  Tickets for both performances are available at the door.

I try to catch at least one Messiah performance every year, but some years it just won't happen, which might be the case this year.  Once a number of years ago, I decided to do two performances in a single day in separate cities for some unexplainable reason, so in the afternoon I was at the Chorus Niagara performance in St. Catharines and Sunday evening I attended another performance at the River Run Centre in Guelph with the Guelph Chamber Choir.  Theirs is a very traditional performance done every year, but Gerald Neufeld always presents a finely-tuned performance I have enjoyed many times in the past.  Cooper  for his part, always works to present a different angle to Messiah, partly I suspect to keep the audience interested, but more importantly to keep the singers on their toes.  It usually works.

If you need a recording of Messiah, there is no shortage of available recordings ranging in price from $ 20.00 to almost $ 100.00, depending on the label and performance.  One of my favourites "old-school" performances dates from 1959 with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the RPO and Beecham Choral Society on RCA Victor.  The full-length work is out of print, I believe, but I do have stock on the highlights disc if that interests you.  A more contemporary, smaller-scale recording that is highly-recommened is on the Naxos label, with the Choir of New College, Oxford, directed by Richard Higginbottom.  It has been around for a few years now, but remains one of the better contemporary recordings of Messiah currently available.

Messiah recordings of every description, along with everything else musical you want or need for Christmas are always available through my website, A Web of Fine Music, at  Just send me a request on the order form provided or email me directly at  Oh, and don't forget to stand during the Hallelujah Chorus!

December 3rd, 2011.

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