I suspect I’m gonna get a lot of flak for this.
In graduate school I was thoroughly educated for several years in the western choral tradition, studying and singing all kinds of Bach and Brahms, Bach and Brahms, Copeland, Mozart, and some Bach and Brahms. In undergrad, the repertoire was much more eclectic, with Rachmaninov and living composers like Janika Vandervelde. And I have done my share of individual movements of Handel’s Messiah, because there’s a lot of beauty there, and people always love to sing it and hear it. I hoped that one day I could sing a whole Messiah, maybe even conduct one.
But it’s not much of a priority anymore.
First of all, it seems to me like the Messiah has been absorbed into the hyper-commercial Christmas PR machine that is claiming more and more of our modern holiday experience all the time. And it goes well beyond the “Hallelujah” flash mobs. The music has become its own cultural institution. There are a good number of singers – and whole choirs – that ONLY sing the Messiah at Christmastime, and nothing else, ever. Those who are less exclusive may still feel that if they don’t sing Messiah at least once in their lifetime, they won’t feel whole and complete as choral musicians. In Ann Arbor, the UMS Choral Union does the Messiah every year like it’s a holy day of obligation, and my husband remembers a time when he went to see it. The show was tediously long, and he noticed people in the audience falling asleep, reading books, doing crossword puzzles – anything but listening to the music. The musicians didn’t seem all that excited, either. People just weren’t invested in the experience.
On the other hand, when he came to hear me sing “Too Hot to Handel” (a modernized, jazz-gospel version of the Messiah) with the Rackham Symphony Choir, every single person in the hall was more than invested. If the music was rhythmic and fast, the audience was dancing and clapping. When it was slow and meditative, they would stare in rapt silence unless a soloist unleashed a run that would make them cheer. There was no suppression of applause, no suppression of a soloist’s showboating or of Maestra Suzanne Acton’s calling the thunder down with the whole ensemble to assist. There was no suppression of pianist Alvin Waddles’ improvisations. Listeners don’t stand for “Hallelujah” because the King of England has to get up to use the loo; they stand because they can’t keep from dancing. (And frankly, I wish the mood of all classical concerts were more like that.)
And none of the music in “Too Hot” is dumbed-down in the least! It still requires an orchestra (albeit amplified with a full jazz band) and is divided into neat movements. You will hear most of the familiar licks and harmonies of the original Handel, but you will be blown away at how well they lend themselves to jazzy treatment. Or you may do a face-palm and say “of course!” because you learned back in Music Appreciation class that Baroque orchestral music already functions a lot like jazz to begin with.
Believe me, after I did “Too Hot to Handel” just once with Rackham, it became nearly impossible for me to think of singing its Baroque counterpart. Ever.
There’s another, less obvious reason why Messiah is no longer top priority for me as a choral musician. Since I’ve left the church, I’ve become skittish about singing sacred music that mixes Christianity with violence. Now Messiah is no “Onward Christian Soldiers” in this regard, but there are three movements toward the end of part two that describe God crushing enemy nations: from “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” to “Let us break their bonds asunder” and “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.” And immediately following is the famous “Hallelujah” chorus – the “Hallelujah” at that particular moment is about God’s people – ostensibly Christians – conquering and ruling over everyone else on earth. And I don’t want to be mistaken for someone who thinks that’s an ideal. If I were to conduct more than just part one of Messiah, I would cut these three movements just prior to “Hallelujah” and brace myself for the flak attack.
But beyond that, if I were to put Messiah on my singer bucket list, I’d want to seek out a conductor who’s committed to making it unique and exciting so we can try to rescue the piece out of the “we do this every year because it’s Christmas” humdrum. If I were to put it on my conductor bucket list, I’d want to be said conductor, and let the musicians REALLY improvise and let the audience clap between movements. Scandalous! But I’m telling you, the most beloved piece of choral-orchestral literature deserves better than the annual sober genuflection it’s been getting. I want to have a strong reason to fall in love with Messiah again, especially if singing or conducting it is ever on my horizon.