The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Conductor Andrew Sewell reveals how he keeps Handel’s “Messiah” fresh. He will perform it on Friday and Sunday nights with the Wisconsin Chamber orchestra, soloists, the WCO Chorus and the Festival Choir of Madison | December 7, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

The weekend will see two seasonal performances of the iconic oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel.

Conductor Andrew Sewell – who will also be busy leading performances of the Madison Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” this weekend — will again lead the combined forces of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra along with the WCO Chorus and the Festival Choir of Madison.

WCO Messiah stage and banners

There will also be four guest soloists:

Soprano Sarah Lawrence:

Sarah Lawrence photo

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck:

Jamie Van Eyck photo 2015

Tenor Calland Metts:

Callend Metts photo

Returning bass Peter Van de Graaff, who is also the host of overnight music on Wisconsin Public Radio:

WCO Messiah bass Peter Van de Graaff

The two performances will be in different locations and have different ticket prices:

The first performance is this Friday night, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m. at the Blackhawk Church, at 9620 Brader Way, in Middleton.

The second performance is on this Sunday night, Dec. 13, at 7 p.m. at the Westbrook Church, at 1100 Highway 83, in Hartland, about an hour from Madison and near Milwaukee. It is about 1-2 hours from Madison.

For more information, here are two links:

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/messiah-at-blackhawk-church/

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/messiah-at-westbrook-church-hartland-wi/

Andrew Sewell recently talked via email to The Ear about “Messiah”:

andrewsewell

What keeps “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel so perennially popular with the public, especially at holiday time? In your mind, does it have to do more with the music or the text? And is it as popular with the performers as with the audiences?

I think the meaning of the text, the recounting of the story of the life of Christ particularly in the first part, which is always recounted at Christmas, makes this work so enduring. It gives people pause to stop and think.

It has become a tradition, not unlike the Nine Lessons and Carols, although one can perform it at any time.

It is both the text and the genius of Handel to set the text so beautifully to music. Especially when you realize he was not a native English speaker, yet wrote it for an English-speaking audience.

Back in the day when I was a violinist, we would perform the full “Messiah” (all 3 hours and 15 minutes) twice on two successive days. Yes, it became hard work after a while, just the sheer physicality of holding your instrument up with very few breaks. However, the score never became old, and there is always something new to be found whether a different soloist, or the way the choir is prepared.

WCO Messiah Cover 2

How many times have you conducted “Messiah”? As a conductor, how do you keep it fresh for yourself and not boring or predictable? How do you find new things to say or new ways to say them?

Well this is our seventh season since performing it at Blackhawk Church, and before then we performed it twice a year for the “sing-out” Messiah from 2000 to 2008. I have conducted it also in Syracuse. So, I’ve conducted it probably around 30 times.

I think it’s the same with any piece of great music that is often repeated year after year: you find ways to keep it fresh. Perhaps you try new things — new articulations, different repeats, adding or subtracting movements, using different “cuts” since we have the challenge of bringing a 3 hour and 15 minute work in under 2-1/2 hours.

WCO Messiah full orchestra and two choirs

How have your conception of the work and your performances of it evolved over the years?

I have found that the tradition in the United States was different to the one I had been accustomed to in New Zealand. Again, I found that for the most part, for local performances of “Messiah,” church choir directors usually cut it down to be about 2 to 2-1/2 hours in length.

I had never heard of the Christmas portion or the Easter portion before moving to the United States. My experience had always been to play the work in its entirety — merely a different tradition.

Nowadays, I enjoy including as many choruses and arias as we have time for, that both challenge the chorus and make sense of the text in some chronological capacity. And of course, there are those arias you cannot omit -– “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” for instance.

WCO Messiah WCO Chorus and Festival Choir 1

What would you like the public to know about Handel and “Messiah” that they may not already know or need to be reminded of?

That it ostensibly started out life as a secular work in a secular environment; and that, over the years, it has become to be considered more as a sacred work and performed in a church. In either venue it is okay and a great masterpiece, whatever your religious or non-religious affiliations may be.

WCO Messiah taking bows

Is there something else you would like to say?

I think as you pay attention to the ebb and flow of the arias and choruses, they should tell a compelling story that reaches its climax in the most positive way. It is a story of great redemption for humanity and is what Handel achieves with his setting of “Worthy Is the Lamb” and the “Amen.” (You can hear the glorious “Amen” in the YouTube video below.)

 

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