The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Maestro Andrew Sewell of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra explains why Handel’s “Messiah” is so popular and masterful, and how he keeps it fresh over so many years and performances.

December 8, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the perennial highlights of the holiday season everywhere is the  oratorio masterpiece “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel (below). In the Madison area, that means the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s performance of the complete “Messiah.  (If you doubt the universal popularity of “Messiah,” just look at and listen to the flash mob version of it at the bottom which has drown over 35 million views in just one year.)

For many years, the WCO concert was a staple of the holiday season in Madison before it was suspended for a few seasons. No longer the “Sing-along Messiah” – in which the audience members served as the chorus — the concert performance now features a cast of guest soloists and two choirs in a complete performance.

Tomorrow night, Friday, Dec. 9 at 7, p.m. in the East Auditorium of the Blackhawk Church in Middleton, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), under its music director Andrew Sewell, returns for the third year of performing Handel’s “Messiah,” with soloists and the newly established Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Chorus, which will be joined by the Festival Choir of Madison (below).


The soloists include Julia Foster, soprano; Emily Lodine, alto; Gregory Schmidt, tenor, and Peter Van de Graaff, bass (bass). The latter hosts the all-night music program on Wisconsin Public Radio.


How popular is it? Well, the WCO “Messiah” has sold out this year (as of Tuesday) as it did  the past two years. Tickets are $30 and some cancellations might be available. For information about the work and the biographies of the performers as well as about possible ticket availability, visit:

 WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below) recently consented to an email interview in which he discusses how he keeps the popular work fresh and what audiences should listen for.

Handel wrote so many oratorios, why does “Messiah” continue to stand out among them all and get performed so often? How often have you performed it?

I think “Messiah” touches a chord with many people from all walks of life.  The music, the text, the message, the occasion and the notoriety of King George standing at the beginning of the “Hallelujah Chorus” have perpetuated its popularity.

Since 1984, I have performed it probably once a year, first as a violinist and then later as a conductor.

What special musical effects or moments in “Messiah” do you think people should listen to with extra attention?

I would say, listen to Handel’s treatment of the text throughout the work.  I think the best thing to listen for is how the music reflects the words both in the choruses and in the arias.

One particular favorite is the tenor aria in Part II, just after the chorus, “Let us break their bonds”. In that aria, “Thou shalt break them”, Handel uses melisma, (flowing notes over one syllable and octave leaps to emphasize the text.  “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, and thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” are uniquely treated musically.

How do you keep such a staple of the repertoire – some might even say a “war horse” – fresh? Has your own interpretation changed over the years and after so many performances? How so?

I think revisiting and studying the work always invites questions.  Each time you look at it, something else may jump out at you.  Sometimes a different soloist can bring in a different interpretation, and so it may affect the tempo, the phrasing or string bowing.  I have also used the same soloists as well as mixed it up over the years.

With such a short time to rehearse this major work, time can be often be a constraint. So any changes I make are usually small or subtle.  I have also conducted this with several other orchestras, and using different editions can raise questions. The Barenreiter edition is more commonly used and returns us more closely to Handel’s original markings (see a page of manuscript below). I have come to have a more Baroque-style interpretation, and with quicker tempos. I don’t like arias to drag too much, or choruses either, for that matter.

How do you compare the music of Handel (below) to, say,  that of Bach or Vivaldi?

They each have their own unique style that is their trademark. For example, Vivaldi’s vernacular,and  even Telemann’s, all show in their Italianate style.  When listening to a piece on the radio, I often try to guess what distinguishes one Baroque piece from the other.

Handel’s music is bright, and positive, extroverted I would say.  Perhaps Bach is more thoughtful and introspective, it just depends.  You cannot make a broad generalization. It depends on the piece and the text.  Certainly, Bach’s Two- and Three-Part keyboard inventions are both bright and happy, and contemplative.

Are there other Handel oratorios that you recommend that people who like “Messiah” should listen to?

Yes, “Israel in Egypt” is one.  There is a large number of oratorios, many of them composed on Old Testament biblical themes from “Judas Maccabeus,” “Samson,” “Saul,” “Belshazzar,” “Joshua,” “Esther” and “Solomon.”

I would listen to his Concerti Grossi, Op. 3, Nos. 1–6 series and Op. 6 Nos. 1–12, plus the Four Coronation Anthems that include “Zadok the Priest” (No. 1) and “The King Shall Rejoice” (No.4).  These are examples of Handel’s instrumental and choral style.

Is there anything you would like to add about this particular performance by the WCO?

“Messiah” normally runs about 3 hours and 15 minutes complete. However these days, with performances and economic decisions, cuts are often made to shorten the performance to fall within 2-1/2 hours or so.

It does lose something of the story, and the fact that there are three parts, with a short interval between each part, makes it more akin to an opera.

For a lot of people, this is the one classical music performance they may attend all year because of the content and the text. It can be a long sit if you are not familiar with this style of music. It’s a growing challenge to our audiences with the immediacy of technology.

However, just to hear the famous Hallelujah chorus “live,” standing in a crowd, is an experience you cannot replicate in the studio!

Posted in Classical music

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,262 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,329,427 hits
%d bloggers like this: