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Hallelujah! Choruses set to perform ‘Messiah’

Sunday, December 8, 2013
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Organist and choirmaster Neil Keen, leads a rehearsal at St. Peter's Epsicopal Church in Albany as the group prepares to perform Handel’s “Messiah.”
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
Organist and choirmaster Neil Keen, leads a rehearsal at St. Peter's Epsicopal Church in Albany as the group prepares to perform Handel’s “Messiah.”

Fans of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” will have no trouble finding a performance of it this season.

Indeed, the Cathedral of All Saints (Tuesday) and Octavo Singers (Dec. 15) will sing the entire work from cover to cover. The choir of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Albany (Dec. 15) will sing most of it; the Albany Symphony Orchestra (Dec. 14-15) will play selections from it; and if all anyone wants to do is stand up and sing the glorious “Hallelujah Chorus,” the Mohawk Valley Chorus’ concert Dec. 8 is the one to attend. All of the performances will be in English.

The popularity of “Messiah” has become almost a mainstay at Christmastime. Yet when it premiered in 1742 and for several years thereafter, it achieved only lukewarm receptions. But the composition’s flexibility and uplifting musical impact proved its saving grace. When amateur choruses discovered that “Messiah” could work with larger vocal and orchestral forces, sections of it could be cut and still be effective, that arias could be pitched in another key to suit a singer’s capabilities and the overall vocal demands were modest, they opted to give it a try. By the 1800s, an annual performance of “Messiah” was a heralded event.

Upcoming ‘Messiahs’

Cathedral Choir of Men & Boys

7 p.m. Tuesday — Cathedral of All Saints, South Swan and Elk streets, Albany

$40-$10; 465-1342; www.thecathedralofallsaints.org

Albany Symphony Orchestra

7:30 p.m. Dec. 14, 3 p.m. Dec. 15 — Troy Savings Bank Music Hall

$59–$19; 694-3300; www.albanysymphony.com

Octavo Singers

3 p.m. Dec. 15 — Union College Memorial Chapel

$20-$10; 253-7088; www.octavosingers.com

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Choir

3 p.m. Dec. 15 — 107 State St., Albany

Donation; 434-3502; www.stpeterschurchalbany.org

Handel (1685-1759) wrote the more-than-two-hour work in 24 days, not an unusual feat for him, basing it on Charles Jennens’ compilation of Scriptural texts from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. The oratorio — a choral work done without scenery, costumes or action — was to be the fundraiser to benefit three charities in Dublin: prisoners’ debt relief, a hospital and an infirmary.

The modern practice of standing during the “Hallelujah” chorus was said to have begun when King George II (1727-60) did so, although there is no documentation that the king was even at the performance.

Matter of timing

For Curtis Funk, who directs the 121-voice Octavo Singers, this will be the chorus’ 11th “Messiah.” His soloists are soprano Deidre Michael, mezzo-soprano Ann Marie Grathwol-Adamick, tenor Martin Coyle and bass Nicholas Wiggins, along with a 22-piece orchestra. Most of the chorus has sung the work before, but there are 10 new people.

“With so many people, the tendency is to drag. And because I’m physically far from the chorus and soloists, there can be a time lag between my beat and the sound,” he said. “So they must watch me and not listen to the orchestra. I’m also pretty tenacious to work to get the chorus to stand or sit for the 53 movements.”

Funk’s goal is to surpass last year’s 600-plus audience.

“I’m shooting for 700,” he said, laughing. “That was the number at Handel’s premiere. Men had to have no swords and women no hoops to squeeze them in.”

Period authentic

For the 17 boys aged 7 to 15 and the 13 men of the Cathedral Choir of Men & Boys, this season will only be their fifth “Messiah,” said director Woodrow Bynum.

“Our approach has changed a lot since our first performance in 2009,” Bynum said. “Before, we paid more attention to ornaments, articulations and dotted notes. Now, we sing through. The words are more present and their meaning. And it’s a different level of vitality. There is little lag time between sections, so there’s little time for contemplation.”

Bynum also likes being period authentic. His 17-piece orchestra will play period instruments, and the pitch the choir will sing at is a whole step lower at A415 than the current pitch of A440.

“It’s a less aggressive sound and doesn’t compete with the boys’ vowels,” he said.

His soloists are soprano Jolle Greenleaf, alto Emily Marvosh, bass Nathaniel Webster and tenor Jack Swanson, whom Bynum discovered this summer singing at the Seagle Colony in Schroon Lake and was greatly impressed by, he said.

Seating will also be at a premium at the church, as “Messiah” quadruples the usual Sunday service attendance, Bynum said.

Seasoned performers

Many of director/organist Neil Keen’s 35 singers at St. Peter’s have sung “Messiah” several times since the first performance 45 years ago, he said.

“Everything is fairly smooth with so many old-timers,” Keen said.

He’s also using a 15-piece orchestra. Soloists come from the chorus and will step forward as needed. They’ll perform most of “Messiah” with only a few cuts, he said. And although this is an annual event at the large church, they always get a gratifyingly large crowd, he said.

Five famous arias

For possibly the first time, the Albany Symphony Orchestra under David Alan Miller will do five of the most famous arias, which students and alumni from Bard College’s Conservatory of Music will sing. They include “Rejoice Greatly” (soprano); “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” (soprano); “Comfort Ye My People” (tenor); “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted” (tenor); and “Why Do the Nations” (bass).

Also on the program are Handel’s Overture to “Judas Maccabeus,” Bach’s Cantata No. 63 and George Tsontakis’ “Unforgettable for Two Violins and Orchestra” with violinists Luosha Fang and Shawn Moore.

‘Hallelujah’ and more

The 65-voice Mohawk Valley Chorus under David Rossi will sing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” as part of the last of three seasonal concerts, which also includes Hanukkah songs, Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song,” Benjamin Britten’s “This Little Babe” and several seasonal favorites. Pianist Alfred Fedak will accompany, and the River Valley Ringers and the MVC Kids Chorus will also perform.

 
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