Arts & Culture » Calendar

Music Notes: Christopher Hogwood's I'll-do-it-myself "Messiah"



Early-music superstar Christopher Hogwood views with particular disdain the frequent American custom of do-it-yourself Messiahs. "The whole purpose of having a chorus in Messiah is that it represents the public," he says. "It sings for you. You don't join in and spoil it. You might as well have a dance-along Nutcracker. The whole notion is immensely uncultured and a mark of sociability rather than musicality. You could just as easily have a huge Christmas party and people would be just as happy."

Hogwood will be in town Thursday, conducting a performance of the Messiah by the Handel and Haydn Society, whose artistic director he became in 1986. This year marks the Society's 135th annual performance of the work, but it is the first time the Society will perform the work on period instruments and according to Handel's own proportions, and the first time it will perform in Chicago. "We've drawn upon the best period-instrument performers in the country," Hogwood says.

Hogwood's recording with his highly acclaimed Academy of Ancient Music of the Messiah, the first authentic recording, is a classic. It, along with his television Messiah, has become a holiday staple. Three of the soloists from these performances will sing in Messiah concerts here this week. Tenor Paul Elliott will be heard in the City Musick's production, and mezzo-soprano Carolyn Watkinson and bass David Thomas in the Handel and Haydn Society's.

"Messiah is something so familiar to all of us that its first hearing with original forces can be a bit of a jolt," Hogwood says. "There can be very few people who don't know the work, and very few, I suspect, who at one time or another haven't sung or played in at least one chorus from it. It is to the oratorio what Gone With the Wind is to the cinema. It has been arranged for everything from eight grand pianos to piccolo with mandolin accompaniment.

"And yet as much as everyone loves the work," he says, "we're actually very unfamiliar with it. Messiah is traditionally performed with a chorus of several hundred and an orchestra large enough to raise the roof--in a musical style that would do justice to the most pretentious moments of Elgar. Handel himself rarely expected more than 60 people to take part in his performances--and that was chorus, orchestra, and soloists combined."

There have been new discoveries in 18th-century performance practices in the nearly ten years since Hogwood recorded the Messiah. In particular, Hogwood says, the tempi for the choruses have sped up. "A few friends asked me recently why the choruses were so slow on our recording. At the time, they were by far the fastest on record. And in fact, the boy sopranos were practically gasping for breath between takes."

One of the standard problems in performing the Messiah is the many versions of the piece that Handel left behind. "The first performance took place, curiously enough, in Dublin," says Hogwood, "so that would seem a reasonable solution: the original score used in its original performance. But that is a meager version compared to later versions, so it is rarely used. One might choose the first London performance, which was fuller." And Hogwood's own choice? "Since Handel himself willed a copy of the score and its parts to the Foundling Hospital, and since this score is from a performance that Handel himself supervised, this is the version I usually use. I am making some adaptations from other versions for this performance, however, since our soprano is very pregnant. Since we only have the one soprano--the Foundling Hospital version calls for two--we're preserving her as much as possible and restoring a couple of alto arias instead."

Hogwood calls this performance "historically informed, but not authentic." He is using female voices for the soprano and alto lines because, he says, "as far as I'm aware, there are no boys choirs in this country that will tour with you for Messiah performances. You have two choices: don't do it at all, or use the next best thing. As it is, the ladies singing in our Handel and Haydn chorus are quite excellent and are singing in a style suitable to the period.

"By following Handel's instructions as he left them to us, by using the size forces that he anticipated, and by using the type of voices and instruments that he would have been familiar with in the 18th century, we can, at last, capture some of the clarity of the message that won the hearts and enthusiasm of Handel's public during his lifetime."

The Society performance is on Thursday at 7 PM in Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan. Call 435-6666 for more information. Audience members are encouraged to bring canned goods to this concert as part of the city's sixth annual "Sharing It" food drive to feed the hungry and the homeless during the holidays.

Add a comment