The holidays are Handel season, with “Messiah” performances by Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Pacific MusicWorks and many other ensembles. But when did the composer like to perform it?
There’s plenty of George Frideric Handel’s 1742 “Messiah” to go around in Seattle this December.
Pacific MusicWorks and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra have scheduled back-to-back programs of Handel and librettist Charles Jennens’ stirring work, a holiday- season touchstone about Christ’s birth, ministry, death and resurrection.
Pacific MusicWorks: ‘Messiah’
8 p.m. Dec. 10-13 at Edmonds United Methodist Church, Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Mercer Island and Meany Hall at the University of Washington, see website for details; $10-$45, free for youth 5-7 with accompanying adult (206-708-6003 or pacificmusicworks.org).
Seattle Symphony Orchestra: ‘Messiah’
8 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec 18-20, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $26-$88 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
PMW’s version will play Dec. 10-13 in Edmonds and on Mercer Island, as well as at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall. SSO is bringing guest conductor Paul Agnew — associate director of baroque music ensemble Les Arts Florissants, based in Caen, France — to lead the orchestra, the Seattle Symphony Chorale and guest soloists Dec. 18-20.
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Handel organized the world premiere of “Messiah,” his sixth English-language oratorio, as a charity event in Dublin, Ireland, using relatively modest musical forces. In the centuries since, interpretations of “Messiah” became larger — sometimes massive — affairs to suit large concert halls. One 1857 performance in London included 2,000 vocalists and 500 instrumentalists.
Both Seattle Symphony and Pacific MusicWorks will do with far less to achieve the grandeur of “Messiah.” The Symphony Chorale, under the direction of Joseph Crnko, SSO’s associate conductor for choral activities, will number 65 voices accompanied by three soloists: soprano Anna Devin, countertenor Benno Schachtner and baritone Matthew Burns. The orchestra will include 26 instrumentalists.
PMW’s “Messiah” is roughly comparable, featuring the UW Chamber Singers — about 44 members — directed by the School of Music’s Geoffrey Boers. Four renowned soloists, all familiar figures on international concert stages, will join them: soprano Teresa Wakim, countertenor Reginald Mobley, tenor Zachary Wilder and bass-baritone Kevin Deas.
PMW founder and director Stephen Stubbs, who received his fifth Grammy Award nomination earlier this week, will conduct all the vocal talent and 20 orchestra players. Stubbs says he was “surprised” when he won a Grammy last year for conducting Charpentier’s “La Descente d’Orphée,” because “our production was quite small … If we win again, we will be celebrating all year long.”
There’s one major difference between these two versions of “Messiah” — Stubbs’ experimental approach to the singing, which hearkens back to Handel’s time. Stubbs has embedded soloists in the choir, where they will not only perform their individual parts but act as section leaders, singing with the choir rather than apart from it.
“I think it will resemble, in a general way, Handel’s practice,” Stubbs says. “Whenever Handel listed his singers, he listed soloists right in together with his choir. It was not like, ‘here are the soloists and here is the choir,’ as we do it typically. The soloists were actually part of the vocal team.”
The result, Stubbs says, is a different vocal texture from what modern “Messiah” fans have heard before.
“The UW Chamber Singers is a fantastic group, focused musicians and very responsive,” he says. “The special thing I’m doing is asking the four soloists to join the choir for big tutti moments [when everyone sings]. I can have the soloists do the most delicate things and then bring the choir in when it’s more homophonic and grander. So it just gives an element of dimension.”
Stubbs likens the technique to concerti grossi, baroque compositions in which a small instrumental ensemble (as opposed to a soloist) alternately plays on its own or as part of a full orchestra.
“It’s the same thing with the quartet and full choir,” Stubbs says. “By comparing the vocal music with the string music, it’s pretty clear he did things like this.”
Stubbs points out one historical discrepancy surrounding the wintry “Messiah” tradition.
“Handel never did it at Christmas,” he says. “He always did it at Easter.”