Tag Archives: choral music

Holidays near, and it’s ‘Messiah’ time

Last year I wrote an arts column for The Post that didn’t make it into print, but as the holiday season is just about upon us, I took a look at this again and updated it for this year:

In the cold early March of 1827, the Viennese physician Andreas Wawruch tried to tell one of his patients, a 56-year-old man suffering from liver failure, that the coming spring would help restore his health.

But Ludwig van Beethoven, who was Wawruch’s patient, knew better. “My day’s work is finished,” he told the doctor. “If there were a physician who could help me” — and here he spoke in English — “’his name shall be called  ‘Wonderful.’”

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It was a reference to the work of a composer Beethoven venerated, a man whose music, in a beautifully bound complete edition given to him as a gift, helped lighten the burden of his final days. It was also a reference to a specific work by that composer, a piece that is making its usual Christmas appearances at concert halls hereabouts these days.

And yet Messiah isn’t even a Christmas piece. George Frideric Handel (which is how the German-born composer spelled his name in his adopted English homeland) composed it in the late summer of 1741 to be performed during Easter week of the following year. The libretto was devised by a literary man of leisure named Charles Jennens, who stitched it together — with great skill — from Biblical passages to be fashioned as an oratorio.

Messiah was first heard in Dublin in on April 13, 1742 (one year to the day before the birth of Thomas Jefferson in colonial Virginia, to give it added context), to an appreciative audience of about 700 people. Three Irish charities shared in the proceeds, and it soon became the most performed of all the composer’s oratorios.

Most of the readings of Messiah we hear at this time of year include the “Christmas portion” of the work, which is Part One of the three parts, to which is usually added the most extroverted bits of Parts Two (the Hallelujah! chorus) and Three (I know that my Redeemer liveth, A trumpet shall sound, Worthy is the Lamb).

I know of at least four Messiah performances over the next month:  The annual Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church production in Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 5; the FAU Chamber Singers and Orchestra on Dec. 7; the Miami-based chamber choir Seraphic Fire on Dec. 19 at the Arsht Center in downtown Miami; and on Dec. 21, the Masterworks Chorus of the Palm Beaches’ annual singalong version at the Royal Poinciana Chapel on Palm Beach.

Thus has it ever been at this time of year. You can hear Messiah any number of times, and I don’t see this tradition dying out anytime soon. And that means all the traditions that go with it, such as standing for the Hallelujah chorus, which every audience I’ve ever seen does promptly. (And it appears to be true that the tradition really did originate with King George II, who found himself so moved by the music that he stood up, thus requiring the rest of the audience to do likewise.)

I, for one, am happy to see this popular work of late Baroque music still speaking with such vitality to today’s audiences. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard this piece in concert, including the complete performances the Florida Philharmonic used to give back in the mid-1990s. I even heard one at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in the 1970s in which the hall was so crowded that  I had to sit sideways in my front-row seat so the cellist across from me could use her bow freely.

People seem to react to it as a truly special part of the holiday ritual, as they do with Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker. Messiah has its moments that are tough going for an audience not used to Baroque practice (accompanied recitative, for instance) and its overall archaic sound. It also seems to me that Messiah is too difficult for many church and community choirs. In an earlier day before radio, television and the Internet, people had more time to spend on making music, but now it’s often just one more thing to multitask.

But the extra indulgence we give to family and friends at this time of year extends to these fortunate works of art, and so music that might normally be reserved for a specialist series of concerts to be enjoyed by a knowledgeable audience , instead is offered up to multitudes, many thousands of whom, no doubt, encounter it for the first time having never heard anything like it.

That would have pleased Jennens and Handel, who meant for the work to be popular. And though we might  keep scheduling it for reasons that date to late Victorian choral practice in Britain, certainly some part of it has to do with the special quality of the music.

Or as Edward Synge, the Bishop of Elphin, one of its first listeners, wrote: “It Seems to be a Species of Musick different from any other … the Harmony is so great and open, as to please all who have Ears & will hear, learned & unlearn’d.”

Review: Master Chorale’s ‘Elijah’

POMPANO BEACH — In its first concert under the hand of a new director, the Master Chorale of South Florida delivered a steroid-fueled reading Friday night of Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah in which the drama of the text was painted in broad strokes of color and the music delivered atop nothing less than a sonic wallop from the Boca Raton Symphonia.

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Joshua Habermann, who took over the chorus this year from founding artistic director Jo-Michael Scheibe, directed the proceedings at the First Presbyterian Church of Pompano Beach with a firm, precise hand, and he clearly enjoys the affection of his singers, who did their utmost for him.

Most noticeable in Habermann’s approach is attention to diction and dynamic detail: In  the opening chorus, Help, Lord!, at the words Will then the Lord be no more God in Zion?, the words were crisp and clear, and there was a nice forte-piano effect on the word Zion.

Unity like that is important to bringing out the emotion in the text, and it paid off in moments such as The Lord has exalted thee, in Part II, where the singers made the most of the line We heard it with our ears, giving just the right sense of an excited crowd talking over each other. And it was hard to resist the big, smooth sound in the major choruses; He, watching over Israel, for instance, where halfway through the song, the entrances of each section were so liquid as to be unnoticeable, and that is choral singing of a distinctly higher order.

Of the four soloists, baritone Donnie Ray Albert had the lion’s share of the singing as Elijah, and he was a granitic presence, with a huge, creamy voice which he put through the paces of a strong theatrical instinct. It was fun to see him wheel around to the chorus of Baal worshipers and bark: Call him louder!, and to hear the great pathos he brought to It is enough, the severely beautiful aria of an exhausted prophet. He sang tirelessly and well, and as the central voice of the oratorio, he moved the action along compellingly.

Tenor Glenn Siebert has something of an Irish tenor sound to his essentially lyric instrument, and it made for very pleasant listening, especially in the aria If with all your hearts. Mezzo-soprano Hannah Sharene Penn’s dark, round sound was particularly effective in the arioso Woe unto them who forsake Him.

Soprano Angela Cadelago sang well, adding a nice, pleading touch to Hear ye, Israel, but she was underutilized. This Elijah was given with far fewer cuts than other performances I’ve heard, and the excisions here — the widow with the sick son in Part I, the second half of Hear ye, Israel, and the pretty quartet in Part II, O come, everyone that thirsteth — eliminated most of the other soprano work, and were basically pointless given that virtually everything else was kept.

With the intermission, the concert lasted about two hours. Lengthening it by another 10 minutes wouldn’t have bothered anyone, and Cadelago would have had more to do.

The Boca Raton Symphonia was most impressive Friday night, mirroring the chorale’s intense engagement in Mendelssohn’s colorful score. The brass section was exceptionally muscular, the horn section most of all, and when the whole ensemble — chorus, orchestra, organist Mark Jones — was going all out in the resonant Pink Church acoustics,  it was easy to understand, and identify with, the passion for oratorios that seized Victorian audiences in the 19th century.

But it wasn’t only about brute force. The orchestra was equally at home in the quietest sections of the piece, such as the mournful clarinets against hushed strings in Hear ye, Israel, or the plangent cello solo in It is enough. The ensemble played well enough to ramp up the appetite for its season, which begins Dec. 7, and to provide reminders of the old Florida Philharmonic at its best (that group’s former director, James Judd, was in the audience Friday night).

There were some trouble spots Friday night: the first quartet after Help, Lord!, was quite weak, and in general the male voices, particularly in the lower regions, are underpowered, as they have been in the past. Still, things look promising for the Master Chorale in this new season. I like most of all the energy Habermann brings to the group; this Elijah was more powerful, more emotional, more involving, then any I’ve heard in a long time. There was little trace here of the reverent churchiness that often attends this music.

This version was more like opera, and it was more interesting because of it.

(The Master Chorale and the Boca Raton Symphonia perform Elijah at 8 p.m. today at Trinity Episcopal Church in Miami and at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Pine Crest School in Boca Raton. Tickets are $35 at the door, $30 in advance.)

Seraphic Fire salutes music of New Spain

Another good sign of the musical season: The return of Seraphic Fire.

The Miami-based chamber choir is in its seventh season, and has added a series of Thursday afternoon concerts at the Harriet Himmel Theater at CityPlace in West Palm Beach. That will also mark the group’s return to Palm Beach County. It did a season of concerts at the First Presbyterian Church in Delray Beach a couple years ago, but discontinued them and scaled back to its original Miami, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale sites.

But this year is a next-level one for the group, which is adding the Firebird Chamber Orchestra to several of its concerts after getting a $250,000 grant last year from the Knight Foundation. This faith in Seraphic Fire’s director, Patrick Dupre Quigley, is surely well-placed.

Quigley has demonstrated time and again his ability to come up with sensational, innovative programming and memorable concerts, and the new season, which begins tonight at Miami’s Corpus Christi Catholic Church, looks like another fascinating series of programs.

Tonight, for instance (and tomorrow at the Harriet, where I plan to be), the concert features music from New Spain, in particular the music of Esteban Salas (1725-1803), “the first Cuban composer of art music,” as my trusty Grove calls him. His music, the article says, “is written in a rigorous and transparent Classical style, resembling that of Haydn, Pergolesi and Antonio Soler.”

I can say with certainty that I have never heard any Salas in concert or anywhere else, and I think it’s a mark of Quigley’s approach that he is seeking out music from the greater neighborhood of South Florida. It promises to be an enlightening concert, and I’m looking forward to it.

Here are some more details from the Seraphic Fire Website.

(Seraphic Fire’s first concert of the 2008-09 season, titled El Fuego Serafico, begins at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Harriet Himmel Theater, 700 S. Rosemary Ave., West Palm Beach. That’s in the center of CityPlace. Tickets are $35. For more information, call 305-476-0260.)

Here’s the choir in With Drooping Wings, from its concert staging of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas last season:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLy3qz8T3Rs&hl=en&fs=1]