One might assume that Stephen Stubbs, a renowned lutenist, harpsichordist and conductor in the international early-music scene, would favor a scaled-down ensemble when he serves as guest conductor for Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s “Messiah” program this weekend at Benaroya Hall.
After all, composer George Friderich Handel wrote the Baroque-era oratorio with a modest production in mind when “Messiah” had its 1742 world premiere. Since Handel’s death, “Messiah” has been routinely presented with large orchestras and choirs, though versions with minimal personnel have become common.
Stubbs, a Seattle native who spent decades in Europe deeply involved with the early-music movement, is less concerned with size than other often-overlooked elements of Handel’s music.
“In terms of the deployment of forces, the amount of players and the amount of singers in the chorale, that won’t be different than last year at Seattle Symphony,” he says. “A small orchestra doesn’t appeal to me for Benaroya’s big hall. My personal vision of the piece is different in terms of tempos and dramatic timing. It’s not about me being a Baroque specialist as much as it is being an experienced hand at the theatrical side of Handel.”
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Stubbs, artistic director of Seattle’s innovative early-music organization Pacific MusicWorks, says he is influenced by his “intensive experience of Handel in operas and oratorios over the last five years. That has informed me directly about the theatrical instincts of Handel and what he’s getting at.”
Those instincts, Stubbs says, challenge “a tradition about oratorios in general and ‘Messiah’ particularly.”
“The parade of beautiful numbers, the soloist standing up and sitting down, the choir standing up and sitting down — that formalized visual approach is not what Handel was after. ‘Messiah’ is a visceral theatrical experience depending absolutely on exact timing and exact tempos and so on, between one movement and another, one thing and another. It should be a fulfilling theatrical experience as opposed to a row of pretty pieces.”
Besides the full orchestra and Seattle Symphony Chorale, “Messiah” includes soprano Shannon Stewart, mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell, tenor Ross Hauck and bass Kevin Deas.
Deas, 57, has earned international acclaim for his portrayal of the title role in concert performances of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” He is making his Seattle Symphony debut, though he does have two previous ties to the city.
Deas sang in a 1998 touring production of “Riverdance” that played Seattle. But he also acknowledges a pivotal experience in adolescence with Abraham Kaplan, the celebrated conductor and composer, and longtime director of choral studies at the University of Washington.
“I went to a music camp in high school,” Deas says, “and Abraham Kaplan was there as an incredibly dynamic conductor. When I saw him on the podium, taking dramatic leaps at climactic points in great masterworks such as ‘Elijah,’ I thought, I want to make a life around this kind of music.”
Deas has also been closely associated with the late Dave Brubeck, with whom he collaborated for 20 years.
“Dave was one of the most generous spirits. I first started working with him in the 1980s in a piece that was color-specific, ‘Gates of Justice.’ Then I did several more of his works, major sacred works.
“Dave had his greatest success with jazz, but in his heart writing in the classical and sacred tradition was his first love.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org