Sunday, November 30, 2003

Variety resounds in area 'Messiahs'

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Handel's Messiah is a holiday tradition that never grows old.

"It speaks to the heart as well as the mind," says John Deaver, director of music for Trinity Episcopal Church in Covington. "Sometimes when things are so popular, it becomes ordinary. But performing it, you can see why it endures."

This season, the oratorio, a favorite for more than 250 years, can be sampled several ways. The music will be heard as selections sung in Christmas programs, such as the May Festival's Carolfest on Saturday, or performed as Part I, the "Christmas portion," which Deaver will lead next Sunday. And for the third year, listeners can hear all three parts of Messiah, performed in an "authentic" rendition.

Conductor Thomas Juneau founded his group, Cincinnati Baroque, in 2001 so that the Tristate could experience an annual Messiah in its entirety.

"I am a strong believer in Messiah as a holiday tradition," says Juneau. His performances, Dec. 12-14 in Westwood, Kenwood and Over-the-Rhine, will go back to the Baroque style, a trend that reverses decades of the overblown, romanticized Messiahs that were once popular.

"As time progressed, tempos tended to slow down. Things got more romantic," Juneau says. "Interpreters were only doing what was written on the page."

Keeping to the Baroque style, his singers will add their own embellishments to the printed music, and tempos will be quick. Juneau's instrumentalists and singers - an ensemble of 18 members each - will perform "straight-tone," using little vibrato.

"We add ornaments and trills," says Juneau. "The choir is virtuoso. We'll take those melismas (fast-moving 16th-note patterns), and sing them elegantly. ... It's an inspiring and exciting performance."

In Mount Lookout on Dec. 14 at Our Lord Christ the King Church, the 55-voice Musica Sacra, which will perform five choruses from the Christmas portion, will aim for a glowing sound.

"What I aim for is not the bombastic sound," says director Helmut Roehrig. "Each chorus has a different approach. When 'Glory to God' bursts forth, I try not to make a big statement, standing there and raising the arms. It has to radiate something, and it has to glow."

Handel's music is rewarding for both professionals and amateurs, directors say.

"He's right for a mature singer," says Trinity Church's Deaver. "And he has such a popularity with the average church choir."

At Miami University in Oxford, choral director Ethan Sperry will lead an hour of "highlights" from Messiah's three parts, performed by undergraduate students (Dec. 12).

"It's a great way to see a sense of the entire work instead of just the Christmas part," Sperry says. "Handel intended the Messiah to be a comprehensive oratorio about the full spectrum of the life of Christ - birth, life and resurrection."

For the listener, the oratorio can touch people on many levels.

"It's stirring music," says Cincinnati Baroque's Juneau. "Even if you're not religious, the music is set so beautifully, that it just moves everyone."

Musica Sacra's Roehrig agrees.

"The selection of the texts is important, and it flows," he says. "How (Handel) linked Old and New Testaments together, it's really amazing. This was really inspired work. People still long for something spiritual, whether they know it or not."

With magnificent choruses and arias spanning more than two hours, it's hard to pick a favorite moment. But Juneau goes for tradition.

"This is going to sound cliched, but the 'Hallelujah Chorus' is my favorite," he says. "It stirs something inside you. It just gets you on your feet, literally. Even if it's not a great performance, it still moves you."


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