Chamber Messiah in Boulder: Pro Musica Colorado and Boulder Chamber Chorale
A preview article – by Betsy Schwarm
Is there such a thing as a single “authentic” Messiah? Even the composer himself might suggest not; after all, in the seventeen years between the work’s premiere in 1742 and Handel’s passing, he presented the work again and again, often reshaping it for particular singers and/or venues. So whether one prefers the grand and glorious Romantic vision á la Robert Shaw, or a more Baroque-style treatment, there is ample precedent.
This time of year, Handel’s Messiah comes in both varieties: the imposing and the crystalline. Handel himself, being generally more accustomed to Baroque proportions, would likely have preferred the crystalline, and that’s what Pro Musica Colorado and the Boulder Chamber Chorale present Messiah December 1 and 2 in Boulder. Soloists for the Messiah will include Jennifer Bird, soprano; Leah Creek Biesterfeld, alto; Steven Soph, tenor; and Adam Ewing, bass.
There is also the question of how much of Messiah to perform. Handel had written it for the Easter season, and the work premiered April 13, 1742 in Dublin. The fact that American audiences routinely hear it only at Christmas, despite Christmas being the focus only of the first of the oratorio’s three parts, would have startled the composer. Moreover, the full work lasts rather more than two-and-a-half hours, and relatively few presenters, let alone audiences, find themselves motivated to experience a complete Messiah performance at the busy Christmas season.
So Pro Musica Colorado and Boulder Chamber Chorale have crafted a program presenting only excerpts from the complete work. All the specifically Christmas material will be there, with spotlights for all four vocal soloists, as well as the beloved For Unto Us a Child is Born chorus and much else, including the Bethlehem/manger scene. After intermission, selections from Parts Two and Three will be offered, focusing on scenes that comment upon the Christmas material, thus emphasizing why those events are so important. Here, listeners will find an ambitious scena for tenor, arias for alto and bass, the Where is Thy Sting duet, and a generous offering of choruses, including For We Like Sheep, and, of course, Hallelujah. It isn’t 100% of Messiah, but it’s much of the most familiar portions, and tells, as Pro Musica’s conductor Cynthia Katsarelis sees it, “a compelling story.”
Then there is the question of how many performers to use. Katsarelis feels that the “subtleties of his [Handel’s] artistry come out better in chamber guises,” and emphasizes the value of “historically informed performances.” Pro Musica will be performing on modern instruments, but with “rhetoric and gestures” that seek to recall traditions of the late Baroque. Those include limited vibrato and an emphasis on “the hierarchy of rhythm,” especially bringing out the dance-inspired energy one finds in many of the movements. Her decision to use a smaller instrumental ensemble – in this case, what Katsarelis describes as “a string quartet on steroids”, joined by continuo, oboes, bassoons, and very occasional brass and timpani – also helps to clarify Handel’s artistry.
The vocal ensemble, too, will be of more Handelian proportion, with only forty members of the Boulder Chorale participating, while several dozen usual members will have the opportunity to enjoy the performance from the audience. The Chorale’s artistic director Dr. Vicki Burrichter agrees with Katsarelis that a smaller ensemble is more suitable to Baroque styles, and not just in loudness. Burrichter points out that subtleties become clearer when expressed by fewer performers, especially in the case of text painting: the art of letting the music convey the exact meaning of a word or phrase. So when the sheep of the chorus For We Like Sheep disappear over the hill, gently fading dynamics vividly suggest the image. Try that with a chorus of 300, and the sheep don’t seem lost at all.
Burrichter and Katsarelis worked together on balancing such issues. Burrichter emphasizes that she and Katsarelis have worked together before and that they “have the same kind of aesthetic.” So though two ensembles and two conductors are involved the performance, any discussions of how one might proceed with the details were readily resolved. Audience members need not wonder who made the decisions: it was a fully collaborative process.
Another important aspect of the Pro Musica/Boulder Chamber Chorale Messiah for 2018 is that audience members are invited to bring non-perishable goods to contribute to a food drive benefiting Community Food Shares. It is a cause with which Handel himself would certainly have sympathy, as he often presented Messiah performances to benefit the London Foundling Hospital, to which institution he eventually donated one of several Messiah manuscripts. Especially as the Boulder performances will be centered on the Christmas portions of the work, creating a connection to a food resource for the needy seems inspired. How better to capture the spirit of Christmas than by being community-minded?
Pro Musica Colorado and the Boulder Chamber Chorale will give two presentations of their Messiah production: Saturday, December 1 at 730pm and Sunday, December 2 at 3pm. Both performances will be at Boulder’s Mountain View United Methodist Church, 355 Ponca Place, 80303: north of the Boulder Turnpike and south of Baseline. On both occasions, a pre-concert talk will begin one hour before the performance. Tickets are available through the following sources:
Those who may find themselves delighting in the performance, but missing the omitted sections of Messiah, take heart: Pro Musica Colorado’s conductor Cynthia Katsarelis admits she has been “pining to do an Easter Messiah.” If enough of you express interest, it may yet happen. For now, however, Hallelujah: let the Christmas portions and some extra material to elaborate the plot suffice.