Meet the People Who Can’t Bring You ‘Messiah’ This Year
Handel’s “Messiah” is a community ritual every year – a glittering parade of recitatives, arias and choirs that hold listeners and performers together in a story of promise, betrayal and redemption.
But not this year. In 2020, if you listen to the oratorio at all, it will necessarily be a private affair. And many artists, for whom it is a popular (and profitable) staple, are almost completely unemployed.
In this context, the emotional arc of the “Messiah” – from comfort to sadness to eventual relief – can feel stronger than ever. Listen here as seven singers and two conductors offer a guide to the work behind the music.
Brian Giebler, tenor: “Solace you”
When you take the stage at the beginning of “Messiah”, every eye in the room turns to you. You are in complete control of all emotions for the next three minutes.
“Solace You” is my moment to take away everyone’s fear and pause for a second to think about why we are here. They come after the overture, which is that almost chaotic moment like anyone trying to get presents or running to Carnegie Hall after a hard day’s work. And then the beginning of “Solace you” is so solemn.
What I want is a sense of calm. It’s all about long lines. Baroque ornaments are fun, but this is about taking your time and not doing anything too flashy.
Luthien Brackett, mezzo-soprano: “O you who tell Zion good news”
It is bubbling with excitement, this is a secret one cannot wait to tell.
It starts with luscious bubbles of champagne on the strings, and when you’re ready to sing it’s almost impossible to hold back your excitement. It’s like speaking to a friend who is grieving and maybe has been home alone for a while, and you come over and say, OK, put your coat on, we’re going to have a great time, “Go up the high mountains! “
There is also healing. These luscious string notes with the wonderful contrast between high and low feel like a weight is being lifted. You have this energy that you didn’t know you had. The aria goes straight into a chorus and everyone joins in.
Joélle Harvey, soprano: “You are very happy”
The music sounds like jumping through a meadow. I don’t know how to say the words “very happy” without smiling. But the challenge is to make the joy permanent so it doesn’t feel wrong or excessive. In the Da Capo section – on the words “Shout! Shout! “- instead of letting it get louder, I’m doing it internally now. Something to revise.
The phrases are expanded from the start with each iteration. And the melismatic passages are exciting, almost like a game. Once you get the technical part behind you it is very easy to find the playfulness in this aria. The Da Capo is delighted with ornament on ornament.
Reginald Mobley, countertenor: “He was despised”
With its limited range and easy placement of notes, this is a piece that would take more than a park and a bark. This is an aria that takes more than a tall-haired Texan soprano who twists a note for a full hour. You as the artist are the channel: you have to be a prism for this incredibly heavy emotion that sets the stage for the Passion part of “Messiah”.
If you speed up section “A” and slow down section “B” – which usually sounds like a cavalry attack – you can hear the flagellation, you can hear Christ being tortured. My job is to convey the personal horror and shame of being responsible.
I sang the aria in Kansas City in 2014. This was the year of the Ferguson Riots following the assassination of Michael Brown. As I sang, I thought of him and all the others who were murdered by an unjust system. I thought I would become a survivor and tell the story of my brothers, my sisters who were despised and shamed and spat and spat on. And I have to bear this shame: of what Americans should feel if they let the system go on for as long as it is.
Joe Miller, Conductor: “Everything We Sheep Like”
What Handel is good at is an amazing emotional contrast. At the very end of this piece is the core of humanity: the iniquity of all is placed on this one person. Until then, you have this comedy of sheep turning around and running away – I always think of an English Sheepdog trying to drum up everyone – and suddenly this very deep moment comes down to it.
In the runs, everyone can weave in a choir and turn away. And then people keep chanting “each in his own way”, all in a tone as if everyone were running into a fence and didn’t know what to do.
Jonathan Woody, bass-baritone: “Why are the nations raging together so angrily?”
I performed Messiah in December 2016 in Kansas City. Everyone was talking about the recent elections. Between the dress rehearsal and the concert, I read about a politician who talked about the Obamas and said something about Michelle, who was returning to the Serengeti to live as a man. I read it on my phone and it broke my heart. At the performance that day, I really asked the people in the audience: Why do we hate one another, distrust one another, dehumanize one another?
I look around the world we live in and where we continue to treat people horribly. When Handel uses these rage arias, I have the feeling that he understood that too. The world he lived in was no less turbulent than the one we live in today. I hear it in the music, in the intensity of the string figures, these sixteenth notes. I hear this fear.
Kent Tritle, Conductor: ‘Hallelujah’
So much of the magic is the sheer cheer that Handel conjures up. The “Hallelujah” chorus provides a firm, memorable depiction and then leads us to a brief but extremely touching section on transformation. Then he creates a sense of elevation through a series of successively increasing pedal points on the words “King of Kings”, followed by a condensation of “Hallelujah” as they walk to the edge of this cliff before the final absolute confirmation. It’s an incredible structure.
When everyone in the hall gets up from their seats, it is an amazing moment. You feel the energy shift in the house. And I see the glow on the faces of the choir as if they were a mirror reflecting what the audience is doing. This choreographic moment gives you the feeling that we are really on the same level. It’s magical and hair-raising.
Jolle Greenleaf, soprano: “I know that my Redeemer lives.”
I see this as an opportunity to share a message of hope and love at a time when it is getting darker as people look for meaningful connections and ways to manage their emotions during the holidays. I try to look at the audience and make so many personal connections with the people there that they can sense that there really is hope, that I am a vessel for that hope.
The melody feels very expansive. It just slides so you can add ornaments. These ornaments help create the filigree gold that you would see in a tapestry. Of course there is an acknowledgment of the darkness: “Though worms destroy this body.” I was 35 when I was diagnosed with cancer. Everything death-related felt fresher, more raw, and more frightening. But it is power to reclaim that and sing about hope despite that fear.
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone: “Let the trumpet sound”
This aria is about awe in every possible form. There is the awesome awe of someone who is shocked to pay attention and hear this secret that says that no matter who you are, you will be resurrected after death and no matter what tests you have been through, life everlasting will have.
And then it’s the amazing sense of awe you get when you hear a rare trumpet solo. I just love that sense of greatness: even though it’s a triumphant piece, there is such a mystery and such a silence.
Section “B” is a moment for reflection. How shocked by this great presence do you have to take a moment: What did I just experience? It’s a pleasure to sing these lines in the same breath, adding to the drama and really putting these incredibly long sentences together. And to come back to section “A” which is now heavily embellished with all the trappings of your own vocal abilities and all of the emotional experience of going through that story. Not just to see, but to share. It’s the greatest moment on stage to be able to say to the audience: this is for you and this is for you.