Sunday, December 8, 2019

Handel's Messiah is all around us

It's that time of year again...time for fans of serious Christmas music to attend a performance of arguably Handel's second-biggest hit, his oratorio Messiah.  Most music historians would put Messiah just behind his celebrated Water Music in terms of overall popularity.  But not during the Christmas season, obviously.

Funny thing is, Messiah wasn't originally written as a Christmas work per se.  Coming at a particularly difficult time in Handel's career following the lacklustre reception to his final attempts at opera with Imeneo in 1740 and Deidamia in 1741, Handel dearly needed a hit.

He found it in the form of a sacred, non-dramatic oratorio based largely on the Passion and then the triumph of the Resurrection of Christ, with the libretto by Jennens drawing from both Old and New Testament sources.  In that case, it would more correctly be performed as part of Easter celebrations rather than Christmas.

Handel completed the score in little more than three weeks between August 22nd and September 12th of 1741, and it received its premiere performance at the New Music Hall in Dublin on April 13th, 1742.  So that likely would have coincided with Easter celebrations that year.

The oratorio was performed to huge acclaim at that first performance and from then on, Handel never looked back.  He wrote many other grand oratorios but never quite recaptured the popularity of Messiah again.  It would become his signature work at the time of his death in 1758.

So why are we flocking to performances of Messiah at Christmas rather than at Easter?  I don't have the answer to that, but I do know for many, Christmas just isn't Christmas without attending a performance of Handel's Messiah.

I've told the story before about the year I threw caution to the wind and attended two performances in two different cities on the same day, and I still can't quite comprehend what possessed me to do it.  I was much younger back in those days of course, so I thought nothing of attending a Sunday afternoon performance with Chorus Niagara in St. Catharines and then after a quick dinner driving up to Guelph for a performance with the Guelph Chamber Choir that evening at the River Run Centre.

Once a day is plenty for me now, thanks, and we still have several from which to choose from before the season winds down.

Locally the Choralis Camerata performance has already been held, as have performances in the Hamilton area, by and large.  And as I noted last week in this space Chorus Niagara is in their alternate year this year so their Handel's Messiah will return next season.

So now you'll have to drive a bit to get to a performance before Christmas but in all these cases the effort will certainly be worth it.

The next Messiah performance within driving distance will feature the Elora Singers at St. Joseph's Church in Fergus just outside of Elora tonight at 7:30 pm.  Entitled Singers Messiah, this unique interpretation will feature the Elora Singers as both chorus and soloists.  Considering many of the singers are in fact accomplished soloists in their own right, this seems rather appropriate.

The Elora Singers are for my money one of the premiere chamber choirs in the country so you are guaranteed a splendid performance this evening, and the weather promises to be good should you decide to make the drive up that way.  For tickets call the box office at 519-846-0331 or go to www.elorasingers.ca.

If you don't mind the trip to Toronto there are two popular performances of Messiah still to come, both coming mid-December.  And both will offer decidedly different interpretations.

From December 17th to the 22nd the Toronto Symphony and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir present their traditional large-scale (some might call it well-upholstered) Messiah at Roy Thomson Hall in downtown Toronto.  This is almost always a sellout so you had better act fast if you still want to attend a performance.  Evening performances are at 7:30 pm and the Sunday matinee is at 3pm.

The TSO will be conducted by Alexander Shelley, Music Director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa and the all-star cast of soloists includes Baritone Russell Braun.

For tickets to any of these performances go to www.tso.ca.

Meantime the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Ivars Taurins presents a more scaled-down period instrument performance of Messiah at Koerner Hall in the city's north end on similar dates, December 17th through the 20th at 7:30 pm.  They will also have their ever-popular Singalong Messiah conducted by "Mr. Handel" on Saturday, December 21st at 2 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.

I attended a performance of their Singalong Messiah at a different location many years ago and it is truly a wonderful experience.  If I recall correctly I sang baritone and was glad I was drowned out by better voices all around me!

For tickets to any of the Tafelmusik Messiah performances call 416-408-0208.

Finally, the wonderful Guelph Chamber Choir under the direction of Dr. Charlene Pauls will be joined by the Music Viva Orchestra performing on period instruments at the River Run Centre in downtown Guelph on Saturday evening December 21st at 7:30 pm.  When I attended this particular performance many years ago as part of my Messiah double bill I recall the trumpets were stationed around the hall including the balcony, to great effect.  I have no idea what Dr. Pauls has up her sleeve or on the tip of her baton this time round but it's worth attending just to find out.

There is also a Singalong Messiah in support of Family & Children's Services of Wellington County on Friday, December 20th at 7:30 pm with the same orchestra and Choir as sort of a warm up to the big performance on Saturday night.  Admission is by donation with a suggested donation of $20 mentioned.

For tickets to the Saturday performance at the River Run Centre you can call the River Run box office or go online to the River Run site to purchase tickets.  I would imagine the Friday evening performance will have tickets available at the door.

So there you go:  a Messiah for every taste and several flavours to choose from this season.  One thing is constant though...don't forget to stand for the Hallelujah Chorus.  It's just tradition now, so just do it.

Now, how do I convince a choir to take a gamble on an Easter performance of Messiah one of these years...

Have a great weekend!

December 8th, 2019.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

In praise of the glorious music of Christmas, but not before December 1st.

I have a golden rule I follow at this time of year:  no Christmas music at all until December 1st.

Admittedly, it is difficult to accomplish this, what with malls and other stores pumping the generic holiday slop nonstop since Halloween in most cases.  It's exacerbated by those so-called "Light Rock" or "Soft Rock" radio stations going non-stop holiday music from early November onwards.

I do my best to tune it all out and try to ignore it.  I suggest others do the same.

The problem with this non-stop supposed Christmas mood-setting is two-fold, from what I can see:  the music choices are at best abysmal and at worst relentlessly repetitive.  Simply put, people often get sick of hearing the music by mid-December because they've been fed a steady diet of the stuff for at least a month and a half at that point.

Don't get me wrong:  I love Christmas music as much as the next person, perhaps even more.  I have, in fact, a huge Christmas CD and album collection going back decades to prove the fact.  But everything in moderation, people, everything in moderation.

Time was during my early days in radio broadcasting, stations eased you into the holiday spirit usually around December 1st with maybe one or two added to the mix every hour, increasing the frequency proportionately until it is all Christmas music about December 23rd or 24th.  No more.  It's all or nothing now, and I will stick with nothing thanks until December 1st.

The musical choices of radio stations and mall music services is especially narrow-minded as well.  The Christmas music universe used is severely limited, leaving out scads of classic recordings we all grew up with and enjoyed hearing years ago in favour of the same old, same old.

In my early years at CKTB Radio in St. Catharines when we still played music most of the time, I often hosted on Christmas Eve or even on Christmas Day some years a programme of Christmas music I would like to listen to myself.  I was given the leverage to play anything I wanted from my own collection, a privilege no longer available to broadcasters in these preprogrammed radio times we now live in.

I coyly referred to my show back then as a "Rockin' 'Round The Christmas Tree free zone", meaning of course Brenda Lee's 1960 classic would not be included in my holiday mix that day.  The reasoning was simple:  everyone else was playing it to death and I wanted to avoid all that.

They still do.  A few years ago when I worked in the banking sector we sometimes played a little game while listening to the local light rock radio station playing wall-to-wall Christmas music:  how many times over the course of our shift did we hear a particular ubiquitous Christmas song in the rotation.  Most often Brenda Lee's classic was the worst offender.  At only 2 minutes and 2 seconds long it was a convenient way to time out to the newscast or something else at the top of the hour.

But that was not the only offender we still hear ad nauseam over the holidays.  My list of Christmas songs that should be banned forever due to over-exposure is a long one and includes the following near the top of the list:  Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney; Feliz Navidad by Jose Feliciano; Santa Baby by Madonna.

Let's be honest, the reason these are played in heavy rotation is because the sound doesn't deviate too much from the musical mix used the rest of the year, so the stations feel they are not going to alienate their core audience.  But then they'll play Gene Autry's Here Comes Santa Claus and well, there goes that theory...

Why is it the only time we'll hear anything by the likes of Nat King Cole, Percy Faith, Andy Williams, Dean Martin and their ilk is over the holidays?  Do they rise from the radio dead for two months each year and then safely tucked away again on the 26th of December?  Sure seems that way.

Look I know radio stations have a "sound" they like to maintain and it's all about keeping their audience numbers up.  Good ratings mean good advertising revenue and that means everyone's happy.  Except perhaps the beleaguered listener such as myself wanting something more at this time of year.

I know some will scoff at the suggestion, but what's wrong with including, say, John Rutter's uplifting  Shepherd's Pipe Carol into the mix.  It doesn't deviate too much from the norm and just sounds wonderful.  There are lots of other examples we can name but you know we'll never hear them on the air...ever.

One of my favourite Christmas CDs is appropriately titled The Glorious Sound of Christmas on the Sony/Columbia label and it features Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra along with the Temple University Concert Choir.  It dates from 1963 and although it shows its age a little bit by today's standards, the Arthur Harris arrangements of such gems as The First Nowell and Deck The Halls is still a favourite of mine every year.  We used to play it every season in my days at CHFI in Toronto in the 70s.  But no more.

It almost seems the only way you'll get to hear some great music for the holidays at this time of year is to go out and support your local choir and revel in the sounds of the season at their annual Christmas concert.

Two of those are happening today, in fact, and will uplift you beyond your wildest expectations.  Both variations of the classic Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols enjoying its centenary this year, they will skillfully draw you into the magic of the season without once expecting you to open your wallet to spend, spend, spend, save for the purchase of the ticket to get in of course.

For followers in Guelph, the Guelph Chamber Choir will be joined by what's called a Brass 5tet at the  beautiful St. George's Anglican Church for their Christmas Festival of Lessons & Carols.  It begins at 3 pm and tickets should still be available at the door.  Closer to home, the Music Niagara Choral series continues this afternoon at 4 pm with their Advent Service of Lessons & Carols at St. Mark's Anglican Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Again, tickets should be available at the door.

If today's icy mix of winter weather deters you from venturing outside, there are two more presentations I know about in the near future in both areas worth remembering.  In Elora the Elora Singers present their Festival of Carols for a total of 4 performances at the candlelit St. John's Church in the heart of the town, on December 17th and 18th at 5 and 7:30 pm each day.  These popular events consistently sell out so you might want to call ahead for ticket availability.

Locally, the newly renovated and splendid Knox Church in downtown St. Catharines presents their popular Festival of Carols on Sunday, December 22nd at 4 pm.  It will feature organ, choir, brass ensemble and of course, lots of congregational singing as well.

Still Christmas themed but somewhat different in scope is the next Chorus Niagara concert coming up on December 14th, entitled Welcome Christmas.  Joining the 100-voice choir will be narrator Benedict Campbell for a collection of carols and stories sure to please this holiday season.  The location is at Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.

Any and all of these performances will raise the level of holiday music to new levels, leaving you feeling uplifted and anticipating the season.

And not one of them will feature I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.  Thank goodness for that!

Have a great weekend!

December 1st, 2019.