The majesty of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ a full experience at Symphony Tacoma performance

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For kids, Christmas is all about Santa Claus and presents under the tree. As one makes the transition into adulthood, this mysterious holiday that marks the darkest time of year can take on a whole other guise, richer and fuller of meaning. During my own transition from childhood and youth into full adult status, Christmas – my favorite holiday – did not lose its luster. Instead, it became deeper as layers of meaning and symbolism continued to unfold and reveal themselves. The darkening of days leading to the winter solstice followed by the return of light filled me with a sense of awe as I felt part of a cosmic turning of the seasons stretching back into prehistory. Human beings have met the darkness with festivals of light for as long as we have been on the planet. Around that time (the 1980s), I went to my first full, live performance of Georg Friedrich Handel’s “Messiah” at Seattle’s St. Mark’s Cathedral. I was blown away by the performance, struck especially by the Old Testament background – the words of the old prophets of Judah and Israel, and passages from the Psalms – that fleshed out the concept of a coming messiah, whom Christians understood to have been realized in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

I have since become very familiar with many individual parts of the composition, but it is a rare treat for me to experience the whole of the “Messiah” in a live setting. Symphony Tacoma held its annual performance of “Messiah” Dec. 14 at St. Charles Borromeo. The well-attended show once again took the audience on the great arc of the operatic story, from the predictions of the coming of the messiah, “a man of sorrows,” through his suffering of physical torment and then his ultimate triumph.

Handel penned the music for the English language oratorio in 1741 as an extended reflection on Jesus as messiah. An oratorio is a large-scale musical work for orchestra and voices, typically a narrative on a religious theme, performed without the use of costumes, scenery or action. Handel’s “Messiah” is one of the best know examples of the form. The libretto (the text for the singers) was provided by Charles Jennens. The text is a compilation of extracts from the King James Bible and Psalms from the Book of Common Prayer. It is divided into three parts, each part divided into “scenes.” Each scene is a collection of individual numbers presented as recitatives, arias and chorus songs. The three parts deal with Christ’s nativity, passion and resurrection/ascension.

At the time, Handel – a German composer who lived in England – was turning away from Italian opera, which was falling out of favor, and had begun to write English language oratorios, usually on biblical characters and themes. Prior to “Messiah,” Handel wrote oratorios on Esther, Deborah, Athalia (the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel), Saul and Israel in Egypt.

In addition to the texts set to music, “Messiah” includes two instrumental numbers: the opening overture (sinfonia) and the Pastoral Symphony, at mid-point through Part I.

Handel wrote the 259 pages of the music in 24 days of “swift composition.” Remarkably, within a week of having finished “Messiah,” he was back at work on another oratorio, “Samson,” which he also completed with amazing rapidity.

Dressed in a sleeveless gown, Symphony Tacoma conductor Sarah Ioannides, guided the orchestra and choir through the grand arc of the oratorio. The program’s guide book included a print of the full text of the libretto, making it easier to follow along and to understand the language sung by the soloists and the choir. Often this came in handy, since the vocal parts often embellish and extend words and phrases to the point that they become sonic abstractions. I count a total of 43 scriptural texts used, 26 of which come from the Old Testament (half of those are from the Book of Isaiah).

The four soloists put in a lush performance: Soprano Tess Altiveros hit the high notes with a brilliant sweetness while alto Laurel Semerdjian’s voice flowed like luscious honey. Tenor John Marzano’s rich tones exhibited what an amazing musical instrument the human voice can be. Bass singer Glenn Guhr’s strong voice was used for some of the most dramatic moments in the program.

The string orchestra was augmented with timpani, beautiful brass and an ever-present harpsichord. The chorus parts were gloriously fleshed out by the Symphony Tacoma voices.

“Messiah” is a sequence of 38 musical tidbits: arias, recitatives, chorus parts and the two instrumental parts. The arias (or airs) are long songs with a solo voice that fix on one phrase or word and fill them with emotional content. The recitative parts are sung more quickly, as if spoken, and are more narrative in nature.

The evening was full moments that caused a tingling that ran up the spine. At times my arm were covered in goose bumps as thrilling chills prickled through me.  “The Glory of the Lord,” chorus scene four, for example, is a personal favorite of mine. Lush layers of voices fill the space, coming on the heels of a stark tenor solo. “And he shall purify,” chorus scene seven, is equally rich. At the end of scene nine, alto singer Semerdjian’s strong, creamy alto tones are taken up by the full chorus.

Scene 11, in which bass singer Guhr sings, “the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light,” conjures up strong images of people in a shadowy place shielding their eyes as they behold a distant light and wonder as to its source. Scene 12, “for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,” is another full chorus piece that is magnificent.

The whole audience stood to join in the singing of the Hallelujah chorus, scene 33. With the addition of the brilliant trumpets, this is definitely the climax of the performance.

All told, attending Symphony Tacoma’s performance of Handel’s “Messiah” is a majestic experience. The music is felt by the whole body and the scriptural context blends it all with a depth of symbolic and meditative content.

Symphony Tacoma and Symphony Tacoma Voices next perform Feb. 1 in “Sing for Joy,” a concert at the Proctor District’s Mason United Methodist Church. The symphony and choir will be joined by vocalist Stephanie Ann Johnson.

For more information, visit symphonytacoma.org or call (253) 272-7264.

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