Every year, the Seattle Symphony presents several December performances of a “Messiah” production that is never quite the same year to year. This time, the conductor, Dmitry Sinkovsky, also is the orchestra’s countertenor soloist.
Handel’s “Messiah” has delighted music lovers for nearly three centuries, and in our time it’s most often performed at Christmas. Every year, the Seattle Symphony presents several December performances of a “Messiah” production that is never quite the same from year to year. Music lovers hear different soloists, conductors and orchestral configurations, and even different “Messiahs”: usually several of the oratorio’s 53 movements — choruses, solos, recitatives — are cut, for reasons of length.
But Seattle Symphony audiences have never heard a “Messiah” production quite like this season’s. The conductor, Dmitry Sinkovsky, also is the orchestra’s countertenor soloist. (The countertenor is the highest adult male singing voice, with a range comparable to a female alto.)
How can Sinkovsky juggle these roles in performance? The multitalented musician answered our queries by email from Russia, prior to his arrival in Seattle.
“Truly in baroque repertoire, especially when you perform chamber-music pieces, there is nothing wrong with directing from the violin or harpsichord,” Sinkovsky writes.
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“We have many examples and surely it can work well. I think it is important that director is bringing musical ideas and energy, convincing all people around with his vision and style. It does not matter what way of directing it is, either using hands or an instrument,” he continues. “This time I will be appearing mainly as a conductor, and as a singer in a few numbers. We have a choir and orchestra and it is definitely much easier and also much more informative to direct ‘Messiah’ from the conductor’s position.”
Sinkovsky agrees that doing the “Messiah” his way is still going to be challenging.
“When you bring to the stage different roles in one performance, the most difficult challenge is to switch from one to another. Let’s say it is like speaking diverse languages at a high level from different groups at one business meeting. Plus the brain and muscles are working differently, when you sing or conduct. I don’t even talk about playing violin …!”
The first challenge of the “Messiah” conductor is to figure out how much of the oratorio to include, and how much to omit.
“It is truly difficult,” Sinkovsky says, “to make decisions about cuts in such masterpiece as Handel’s ‘Messiah.’ I tried to save most of the choruses and make the last (3rd) part shorter, the one which starts after the famous Hallelujah Chorus. I also give priority to my singing colleagues when Handel gives his options between arias for alto and other voice type, so I will be able to focus more on the orchestra and choir during that time!”
Maybe it’s the mark of a true classic that Handel’s “Messiah” has been so malleable over time. Composed in 1741 when Handel was 56 and shaken by the box-office failures of his most recent operas and oratorios, the “Messiah” emerged in the space of 24 inspired days. The 256-page score bears stab marks from the composer’s hasty pen, and traces of the sand Handel used to blot the ink.
An overwhelming success ever since its premiere, the “Messiah” is usually performed these days on modern instruments and at contemporary pitch, as will be the case in the Seattle Symphony’s performances. Many music lovers prefer the sound of period performances, where original baroque-era instruments are brought into play, and the pitch is usually a semitone lower than today’s standard concert pitch.
Among the work’s enduring mysteries: Why did King George II stand up at the beginning of the “Hallelujah Chorus” at the London premiere in 1743? Royal protocol deemed that everyone had to rise and remain standing whenever the king did. Ever since then, audiences around the world have obediently risen when the orchestra launches into the chorus’s opening bars. And why did the king stand up? We’ll never know. Some believe it was because he was overcome by the majesty of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Others have more prosaic answers: the king’s gout caused “pins and needles” in his feet, and perhaps he just needed to stretch a bit. And maybe the king, who habitually arrived late, came into the theater just as the “Hallelujah Chorus” began, and everyone in the theater immediately rose.
These days, the practice is continued as a sort of “seventh-inning stretch.” Look for it to continue this weekend in Benaroya Hall.
The Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale presents Handel’s “Messiah,” featuring conductor/violinist and countertenor soloist Dmitry Sinkovsky. 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14; 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec, 15; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $24-$89; 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org
Other notable holiday concerts:
Seattle Men’s Chorus, “Jingle All the Way”: Fans wait all year for the uplifting and often uproarious holiday show, which offers beloved carols, fresh takes on holiday classics and showstopping production numbers that will make your spirits bright. 8 p.m. Dec. 16, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20, 21, 23; 2 p.m. Dec. 23, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $15-$85. Also 7:30 p.m. Dec. 15; Everett Civic Auditorium, 2415 Colby Ave., Everett; $25-$58. 206-388-1400, seattlechoruses.org
Seattle Pro Musica presents “Silent Night”: Commemorating the century since the WWI Armistice, this program of English, French and German carols conveys the spirit of the incredible “Christmas truce,” which took place in the trenches during the war: 100,000 English, French and German troops laid down arms to exchange holiday greetings and even gifts. 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15; Chapel at Bastyr University, 14500 Juanita Drive N.E., Kenmore; $12-$38; 206-781-2766, seattlepromusica.org
Northwest Boychoir, “Festival of Lessons and Carols”: It wouldn’t be Christmas without the seraphic sounds of the 90-voice boys’ choir, in a program modeled on the traditional Christmas Eve service of the King’s College Choir. This is the 40th year for this Seattle classic; Joseph Crnko conducts. Dec. 14-23, in several regional churches (a Dec. 22 performance in Benaroya Hall is hosted by the Seattle Symphony); $11-$35; 206-524-3234, nwchoirs.org
The Irish Tenors, “We Three Kings”: Audiences have the luck of the Irish when this famous trio (Ronan Tynan, Anthony Kearns and Finbar Wright) comes to town. This time they bring a program of Irish and international holiday classics and stories, with a generous Christmas twist: proceeds from this show go to benefit the programs and services of Ballard NW Senior Center. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $55-$150; 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org
Seasonal Sundays — Chihuly Garden and Glass Live Concerts: Every Sunday in the Glasshouse, these live concerts — included free with admission — feature some prominent Northwest musicians in festive music. Performers from the Seattle Opera are featured on Dec. 16; on Dec. 23, it’s chamber music from Byron Schenkman & Friends. 1:15-2 p.m. Dec. 16 and 23; Chihuly Garden and Glass at Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; $26 ($22 King County residents/seniors, $17 ages 5-12) admission; chihulygardenandglass.com
CORRECTION: This article was corrected at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 11. An earlier version incorrectly reported that Dmitry Sinkovsky would perform as concertmaster in Seattle Symphony’s “Messiah,” in addition to conductor and vocal soloist.