Not Messiah again?!


Not Messiah Again! JFC! That thing is dragged out every year at this time. Don’t the sheep ever tire of hearing that piece? (Answer: Apparently not). Yet they call the Rachmaninov Second and Third Piano Concerti a “war horse.” Ha! Not even close by comparison!

One of the most memorable Messiah performances I ever heard was conducted by the late Margaret Hillis, founder and director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. “A Brisk Messiah” was the headline for the Hillis interpretation of Messiah in The Washington Post the next day following a performance she conducted of Messiah in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in the late 1970s with Robert Shafer’s (then) Oratorio Society of Washington which today is known as The Washington Chorus. Then the year following the Hillis Messiah, we in the District had Robert Shaw come and conduct Messiah in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington. I had thought that because Ms Hillis studied with Shaw that the Shaw Messiah would be like her. WRONG. That was a wrong assumption to make. His Messiah was pretty much the opposite of hers, to my disappointment. He used the “traditional” draggy tempi that were mainly used at that time for Messiah (where it took 3-4 hours to get through the thing). That was around the same time that the “Authentic Performance Practise” Messiah was released by The Academy and Chorus of St Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Christopher Hogwood. I liked the Hogwood performance and the Hillis performance was the closest to that, although I still think her tempi were faster than the Hogwood and a bit faster than Julian’s for most of the work. I went with choral friends to hear the Hillis Messiah at Kennedy Center and we loved it! We had never heard it done like that before. We talked about that performance for years afterwards. “Remember the Hillis Messiah,” we’d say to each other. No slow, draggy, predictable, dull, boring Messiah from Ms Hillis. And as I recall, Hillis came to her interpretation after studying with the renowned Händel scholar Dr Alfred Mann. A friend of mine was in the Oratorio Society of Washington and he told me that Hillis told Shafer, “Robert, this will be the slowest Messiah on record.” Ha! It was just the opposite of that and my friend said she said that only to get Robert Shafer to thoroughly drill the Chorus very, very slowly. And when she met with the Chorus for the first rehearsal it went splendidly because the Chorus had been thoroughly prepared by Robert Shafer and they rattled off those many run passages of Messiah effortlessly. (Slow drilling works, you know, no matter what the instrument).

The only two types of Messiah I like today are:

1. The Hillis Messiah, or
2. Messiah performed by the now “retired” University of Maryland Chorus where the Chorus ornaments (just as the soloists do). The Maryland Chorus is the only Chorus I’ve ever heard ornament the choral parts of Messiah and I’m not sure where Dr Paul Traver (their founder/director) got that version from, but each chorus in Messiah was ornamented with some trills, “fillers” and other Baroque ornamentation rehearsed/drilled just like the rest of the piece. I had never heard Messiah sung that way before and after hearing it the way the University of Maryland Chorus sang it, I couldn’t imagine it being done any other way. But The Maryland Chorus (as they were also known) was “retired” awhile back by the University of Maryland so we won’t be hearing them do that again, unfortunately. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that any of the choral ensembles at the University of Maryland use that “Traver version” these days even though I would assume they still have the scores (Novello Edition?) with the choral ornaments written in.

The problem with Messiah being dragged out yet again is that other works are continuing to be neglected just so that the sheep can get their Messiah “fix” for another year. What works are neglected? A long list of them. There’s Ralph Vaughan Williams’s grand and glorious Hodie, for exanple, and his Dona Nobis Pacem. Other neglected works include, but are not limited to:

JS Bach: The Christmas Oratorio
Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ
Britten: A Boy Was Born, Saint Nicholas
Brubeck: Fiesta de la Posada
Buxtehude: Das neugeborne kinderlein
Charpentier: Midnight Mass for Christmas, In Nativitatem Domini Jesu Christum
Clausen: Gloria
Courtney: A Musicological journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas
Davies, Peter Maxwell: O magnum mysterium

Finzi: In terra pax
Händel: Te Deum
M. Haydn: Run Ye Shepherds to the Light
Herzogenberg: The Birth of Christ
Honegger: Christmas Oratorio
Leighton: Lully Lulla
McKinney: The Annunciation
Mechem: Seven Joys of Christmas
Menotti: Amahl and the Night Visitors (might do the “Shepherds Carol” from this work)
Pachelbel: Magnificat in G
Stephen Paulus: So Hallowed is the Time, Pilgrim Jesus.
Pergolesi: Magnificat
Poulenc: Gloria, Quatre Motets pour Noel
Respighi: Laud to the Nativity
Rheinberger: Die Stern von Bethlehem (cantata)
Rhodes: On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity (Peters – PP66737)
Ringwald: The Song of Christmas
Rutter: Te Deum, Gloria, Magnificat, Where Icicles Hang
Saint-Saens: Christmas Oratorio
Schubert: Mass in D, Mass in G
Schuetz: Christmas Oratorio
Stroope: Hodie
Susa: Carols and Lullabies of the Southwest, Christmas Garland

Vaughn Williams: Hodie, The First Nowell, Fantasia on Christmas Carols
Warland: Christmas #1 and #2 (carol settings w/flute and harp)
Willcocks: Christ Is Born

See what I mean? Messiah is bumping out all of these other pieces which the sheep might like too, if they ever got to hear them.

And then with Messiah, there’s that god-awful silly tradition where the audience feel they must stand for the Hallelujah Chorus on cue like Pavlovian sheep, just because some King of England (King George II specifically) supposedly stood during the Hallelujah Chorus generations ago. I suspect if some of those standing were asked why they stood for that, they’d say, “Oh you have to stand for that because that king what’s-his-name stood up for it. It’s tradition, you know.” Yeah, there are many traditions which make no sense whatsoever, so why continue to do them? I read that the late Robert Shaw (the founder and former director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus) couldn’t stand that standing tradition for the Hallelujah Chorus and I can’t either. It’s so sheep-like. It’s loco. Even if some king did stand for that chorus, for whatever reason—one article I read last year said the man (that king) who supposedly stood for the Hallelujah Chorus wasn’t even there at the performance—that doesn’t mean people have to stand today. But it looked like most of the herd did stand at Trinity Wall Street. The words that came to my mind were: Mindless Sheep. But the Chorus had already splendidly sung that chorus about the sheep: “All we like sheep.”

Norman Scribner had las mujeres/the women of the Choral Arts Society of Washington Chorus wear long, deep-blue dresses (they were very pretty). And Dr Paul Traver had the entire University of Maryland Chorus for their National Symphony Orchestra performances at the Kennedy Center wear (on occasion) medium-blue coloured shirts with long black skirts (las mujeres/women), black pants (los hombres/men) and black bow ties for los hombres with no black jackets for anyone. That looked good. I liked that. But everyone else I can think of stayed in the black and white rut.