'Messiah' performance launches Christmas season
A smaller orchestra and choir allowed director Dennis Roberts to present a more streamlined arrangement of the “Messiah,” one actually written for a small ensemble by Handel himself more than 200 years ago.
Although Mozart wrote the more commonly heard arrangement for a larger group of musicians and singers, Roberts said this year he “wanted everybody to hear an arrangement that may have been like what Handel heard.”
For many years, Roberts has tinkered with the “Messiah’s” arrangement to fit his exacting sensibilities and the abilities of the local musicians and singers.
The director was especially pleased with Sunday’s matinee performance, calling it “the best performance I’ve heard them do in the 23 years I’ve been directing the ‘Messiah.’ It was just awesome. What I heard matched what’s in my head.”
Of course, one of the highlights of a Susanville performance of the “Messiah” is Roberts’ emotional directing style, one that is nearly as ornate and expressive as the music itself.
The Susanville Choral Society’s presentation of the “Messiah” provided a wonderful opening of the Christmas season for those who packed into the church and served as a poignant reminder why we celebrate this time of year.
For one magnificent musical hour, Handel’s masterwork erased the rift between the religious and the secular, the holy and the profane, unifying and satisfying both groups with stirring rhythms and soaring harmonies that could soothe even the most savage soul. If Jesus is the reason for the season, then the “Messiah” is a nearly perfect vehicle to bring that message to Susanville each year.
The soloists and the choir were steady and strong and the performances were spirited and uplifting. The orchestra ably handled the difficult material, although there were a few little bumps along the way. Together they made a joyous noise.
Baroque music such as the “Messiah,” like architecture of the same period, features complex, ornate embellishments.
These embellishments in the “Messiah” are the musical trills, runs and grace notes that make performing Handel’s work much more technical and difficult for both the musicians and the singers.
The “Messiah” is not an easy work to perform and is always a challenge, especially for local musicians and singers. The score covers an expansive range, pushing the upper and lower limits the instruments and singers in passages that climb and rise dramatically or fall unexpectedly like a stone.
In the Taylor Room, a sanctuary off to side of the main seating area in the church, just minutes before the performance was set to begin, Roberts and some of the musicians were still discussing and working through some of the odd time signatures and rhythmic patterns found in the “Messiah.”
For example, in one portion of Handel’s original arrangement of the “Messiah,” the string parts are written in 12/8 time against a bass part written in 4/4 time. While the eighth notes remain simple eighth notes in 4/4 time, they become triplets in 12/8 time, a tricky eventuality that requires the utmost attention, care and precision from the musicians to keep the whole complex section from a chaotic, cacophonous collapse.
While Roberts enthusiastically sang, stomped, clapped and demonstrated the way the two contrasting rhythms worked together and actually interlocked into each other, one string player simply tuned the whole discussion out and warmed up by nonchalantly by plucking diatonic triads on a cello. Now there’s a sweet sound one doesn’t hear everyday!
When asked about that tricky section, Roberts calmly responded, “Yeah, there are some cool little ruffles in there!”
A Susanville tradition
The presentation of Handel’s ever-popular work describing the life of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, has been a local tradition for more than 30 years.
The text of the “Messiah” comes from the Bible — mostly messianic verses from the Old Testament — but it also includes portions of the Gospels as well as parts of the Book of Revelation.
This year’s performance again took place in the historic United Methodist Church, a majestic old brick building with tall ceilings, beautiful stained glass windows and marvelous acoustics some say are the best in Lassen County.
According to the program, this year’s performances in the church are “magnified by the grandeur of sound that makes Handel’s music so thrilling.”
Handel, arguably the most prolific writer of the baroque period, composed the “Messiah” in just 24 days during the summer of 1741. Handel’s new work was based on a libretto by Charles Jennens — another operatic piece that described the life of Christ.
German by birth, Handel’s musical career led him to England where he learned the British musical forms, in the case of the “Messiah,” the oratorio in the Anglican anthem tradition — essentially an opera without the staging, dancing and acting.
His “Messiah” was first performed during Lent in a small venue in Dublin on April 13, 1742, but it quickly became popular during the Advent season, the weeks in the Christian calendar leading to the celebration of the Lord’s birth.
The audience stands during the Hallelujah Chorus portion of the “Messiah,” a tradition that began when England’s King George III rose during a performance. When the monarch rose in 18th century England, so did everyone else. The tradition of the audience standing during the Hallelujah Chorus remains to this day around the world.
In keeping with the yuletide tradition of performing the “Messiah,” most of the entire first section that deals with Christ’s birth is retained while only small portions dealing with His passion and resurrection are commonly performed — allowing the work to stand alone during the Christmas season.
The “Messiah” is one of the most popular and enduring musical works of all time, particularly during the Christmas season, and it is not generally performed during the Easter season any more.
Vivian Ilten, Marjorie Montell, Maryel Roberts and Marguerite Vardman were the soprano soloists. Teri Miller was the tenor soloist; Joe Harvey was the alto soloist; and Dan Merritt was the bass soloist.
Deborah Abbott, Rebecca Fimbrez-Abbott, Linda Braun, Stanleean Hafner-Chapman, Joyce Ferguson, Clair Leve, Hannah Merritt and Kathy Adams Parke comprised the soprano choir.
Janie Beams, Venus Cooper, Ann Craig, Ricki Jo Dimond, Claudia Dunlavy, Jo Forsyth, Anna Householder, Christine Jones, Janice Montgomery, Karen Sherve, Shirley Stagner, Martha Sweet and Jackie Woodson comprised the alto choir.
Ed Hafner, Frany Hyatt, John Leicester, Don Lepley, Susan Merritt, Janiska Nordstron, David VanSickle and Bill Wemple comprised the tenor choir.
Brian Anderson, Mike Baxter, Andre Guerrero, Marshall Leve, Doug McCoy, Barney McKee, Andrew Merritt and Paul Schlotterbeck comprised the bass choir.
Carol Fontana, Linda Sutton and Sue Bateson played violins; Mike Bingham and Robbin Peterson played violas; Owen Bateson and Sarah Quale played the celli; John Joscelyn played the bass viol; Donna Harvey played the organ; Patricia Moore played the harpsichord. Dick Bendix played the tympani. Roberts was the conductor.
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