in: News & Features

November 21, 2012

194 Years of Handel’s Messiah in Boston


Handel’s Messiah has been heard in Boston since The Handel and Haydn Society introduced it here in 1818. The first of many local annual performances this season is appropriately theirs at Symphony Hall on November 30th through December 1st. Boston Baroque, the first local presenter to offer authentic performances, comes next, on December 7th and 8th at Jordan Hall. Six other performances follow,  including a traditional one at Trinity Church, Copley Square as well as the promising starts of new traditions at JP Concerts and Musica Sacra. BMInt is pleased to present an expanded listing with a lengthy interview from Boston Baroque’s Martin Pearlman, as well as shorter ones from Mary Beekman of Musica Sacra and Peter Terry of JP Concerts.

Handel and Haydn presents Messiah at Symphony Hall on Nov. 30th at 7:30 and on Dec. 1 and 2 at 3:00

Karina Gauvin, soprano
Daniel Taylor, countertenor
James Gilchrist, tenor
Sumner Thompson, bass
Harry Christophers, conductor

period orchestra of 62 and chorus of 40. Tickets $90 – $25

Founded in Boston in 1815, the Handel and Haydn Society (H&H) is considered America’s oldest continuously performing arts organization and will celebrate its Bicentennial in 2015. Its Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus are internationally recognized in the field of Historically Informed Performance, using the instruments and techniques of the composer’s time.

H&H began in the 19th century with the US premieres of Handel’s Messiah (1818), Haydn’s The Creation (1819), Verdi’s Requiem (1878), and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (1879). In 1967, Artistic Director Thomas Dunn transformed the large volunteer chorus into a small, expert ensemble, and in 1986, Christopher Hogwood became Artistic Director and added period instrument performances. Music Director Grant Llewellyn (2001–2006) and Artistic Advisor Sir Roger Norrington (2006–2008) continued this tradition, as Harry Christophers, appointed in 2008, does today.

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Boston Baroque presents Messiah at Jordan Hall on Dec.7 and 8 at 7:30

Mary Wilson, soprano
Ann McMahon Quintero, mezzo-soprano
John McVeigh, tenor
Andrew Garland, baritone
Martin Pearlman, conductor

period orchestra of 21 and chorus of 20.  Tickets  $80 – $25

BMInt: How is Boston Baroque’s Messiah distinct from others?

Martin Pearlman: I’ve never tried to be different from anyone else. I’ve always just done what I wanted to do and what suits my group and my own approach. But what is different about our presentation than any other is we go into it with a certain attitude and a certain personality. If you’re true to what you’re hearing and feeling, it’s going to be different. When we started doing Messiahs in 1981, we were very different, because we were the only group using period instruments.

In the early 80s Messiah was still being treated as a reverential experience. It was usually done pretty large, and much heavier and slower by comparison with what we hear today. I hadn’t grown up hearing Messiah all the time, so I didn’t have that baggage coming to it. I came to it rather as a great example of Baroque music rather than something I had to sit through every year and hear in a particular way. I felt it should be treated like other Handel oratorios.

That freed me up to quicken the tempos. I remember the soloists being very surprised and audiences too. It wasn’t just that it went faster. The character was also different. In Baroque music there’s a common language among lots of composers and so certain figurations are commonly used in music about war, storm, serenity, or when there’s a shepherd in a field. If you come to Messiah with that kind of understanding of Baroque conventions, it’s not just a matter of tempo, but also a matter of character that meters and rhythms suggest.

When I put together our first performance, I was not just pruning away stodgy accretions. I was just putting on the piece without realizing how different it was going to be. Even today when I conduct a familiar piece for the first time, I often only realize afterwards how different the results are from what people have expected.

Over the years the forces I have employed in our Messiahs haven’t changed much. There are 21 in the chorus, and orchestra of 21 or so, and of course a quartet of soloists. We’ve been using the so-called Dublin version (from the premiere) with minor changes over the years.

Do you think the quality of period instrument play has improved in the 30 years you have been doing this?

Absolutely! Of course it has. It’s always a high wire act to do “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” but it was really very risky back then. String and others were doing well, but it wasn’t as in-tune and technically strong as it is today. I can expect period orchestras to come up to the standards of the finest modern orchestras now.

Do you think there can be lack of emotion in period performances of Messiah when conductors agonize more about dotted rhythms than the meaning of the texts?

Do I detect a preconceived opinion? Some of the heavy older performances have also lacked emotion, they’re just loud, though I loved Beecham’s. But then this is true of performances in any style—some are emotional and others are remote. But you should not confuse thickness of sound and loudness for emotion. Within its range a solo clavichord can be tremendously emotional. Go in with open ears and you can hear incredible emotion in the details from our kind of performance. If you’re someone who has only listened to Mahler before coming to one of our performances, you might not get it. But to me, there’s no differences whatever in the emotional levels of period and modern performances.

On the other hand, 40-years-ago a lot of early music performances came from musicologists, and they had different attitudes; they were demonstrating something more than expressing something. For me it’s all about expression, and there should be no difference between early and modern performances on that score.

One of the things that inspired me to do Messiah in the first place was hearing a very popular performance on television. I wondered why people were going to this every year; it was really boring. It had become more a rite than concert. For me there’s no reason to do a performance if I don’t feel emotion in it.

There are people who expect the musicians and conductors to be gyrating and waving all around with dramatic physical gestures. But sometimes in these cases you see more drama than you hear. I grew up with Fritz Reiner, for whom just the opposite obtains. He moved about one inch in each direction and incredible things would come out. Sometimes you should just listen and ignore the visual cues.

In Messiah there need to be big contrasts between the sounds of the soloists and the full chorus. There are dramatic moments when you want a lot of sound.

The total amount of sound doesn’t matter for me as much as the contrast between the quieter moments and the choruses. We don’t use large-voices opera singers for the solos, so the quieter moments are quieter in our performances and then, if the tuttis are also quieter, the contrasts are just as pronounced. I’m not interested in demonstrating anything to anyone about period instruments. It’s already been demonstrated. I’m not interested in stunts like one-voice-on-a-part versions.  Performance is about emotion for me- otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. But if you’re really tuned in to one of our performances, the emotion is there as well as a clarity of detail which enhances the feelings for me.

Let me just leave you with this thought: It’s a mistake to equate a lush sound with emotion. And you shouldn’t think that something is more emotional because it’s slower. I was once conducting the “Hallelujah Chorus” with a symphony orchestra and management insisted that the audience should join in. Well, after they heard my tempo, they just decided to listen.

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Trinity Church Copley Square presents Messiah Part I & “Hallelujah Chorus ” on Dec. 9, at 3:00 PM with

Poulenc: Four Christmas Motets
Handel: Organ Concerto Op. 4 No. 2 in B Flat Major
Sonja Tengblad, soprano
Katherine Growdon, mezzo-soprano
Eric Perry, tenor
Ben Henry-Moreland, baritone
Colin Lynch, organ

The Trinity Choir with Baroque Orchestra, Richard Webster, conductor.   Tickets $45 – $5

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Musica Sacra presents Messiah Part I on Dec. 15, at First Church in Cambridge, Congregational at 7:00 pm with

Community Sing of Carols and “Hallelujah Chorus”

Chorus of 30 and small orchestra of strings, brass, and timpani with soloists of Exsultemus:
Brenna Wells
Thea Lobo
Matthew Anderson
Ulysses Thomas
Mary Beekman, conductor.   Tickets $62 – $15

BMInt: This is Musica Sacra’s first Messiah presentation in its 32 years of operation. Why now and tell us about it!

Mary Beekman: I consider Messiah along with Nutcracker to be something that, if anything can, will bring people to a classical event. It will be at Christmas time, and it will be one of these two pieces.  Performing Messiah in Boston is a little like bringing coals to Newcastle, though. Why should Musica Sacra do it when Boston Baroque and Handel and Haydn have such a tradition? I’ve come around to the idea that it’s not overkill for us to present it because we’re offering something that’s different. We’re only doing Part One (with the Hallelujah Chorus added), which concerns the Prophecy of the Messiah coming and the actual birth of Jesus. We want to appeal to an audience that is happier coming to a concert that’s an hour in length. Also, we’re having a very small string orchestra with brass and timpani like the one Handel employed at the Foundling Hospital in Dublin. Another difference is that our audience will be invited to sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” with the orchestra and chorus. That audience participation is not something you’d get at Handel and Haydn. Finally, our venue, First Church in Cambridge is really intimate— it seats about 460, unlike Jordan Hall, which seats 1200 for Boston Baroque, or Symphony Hall, which seats 2,000 for Handel and Haydn. Our chorus is about 30.

Another aspect which sets us apart is the congregational carol sing supported by First Church’s Frobenius organ. We’ll start at 7:00 and end an hour later with the carol sing and the “Hallelujah Chorus.” This gives people the opportunity to bring well-behaved children. But they should know that this isn’t a Raffi concert!

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Community Messiah Sings:

Masterworks Chorale presents its 51st annual “Messiah Sing” on Dec. 14, and 15 at 8:00 pm

Sing at Carey Hall in Lexington Steven Karidoyanes conducts vocal soloists and orchestra in sing-along performances of where the audience is the chorus! Sing the masterwork or be a part of the audience. Vocal scores are loaned without charge or bring your own.

* * *

Cambridge Community Chorus presents a “Messiah Sing” on Dec. 16, 3:00-6:00 pm, Jamie Kirsch, Music Director

Join the chorus and sing along with favorite selections from Handel’s masterpiece at  St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, 239 Harvard Street, Cambridge, MA. Admission is free (donations welcome); light refreshments to follow..

* * *

JP Concerts presents “Sing Messiah!” On Dec. 22 at 4:00 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Revere Street and Roanoke Avenue, Jamaica Plain

Von Bringhurst, soprano; Yakov Zamir, alto; Elijah Hopkin, tenor; James Dargan, bass; and Sarah Hager, organ.

Scores provided thanks to Masterworks Chorale.  Tickets are $10 at the door.

The audience is invited to sing the choruses along with the soloists.  There will be an intermission with food and drink after Part One; after which the audience is invited to continue to sing Parts Two and Three.

This is the only uncut performance of Messiah in Boston scheduled for this season.

It is also the only performance with male soprano and alto as well as tenor and bass.  Costumes are optional but warmly recommended.

BMInt: Your concept of a Messiah Sing with professional soloists and organ accompaniment is not so unusual- what makes it different? 

Peter Terry: Handel transposed and reallocated arias and modified choruses in many of the performances of Messiah that he personally directed between 1742 and his death in 1759. In the spirit of Handel, and in harmony with this performance tradition, we have allocated arias and chosen choruses that will make this Messiah unique.  For example, the soprano solos will be sung by male soprano rather than female soprano, and some choruses will be sung by the quartet rather than by massed choral forces.  Some vocal solos which the audience may be accustomed to hearing sung by soprano will be sung by tenor, and vice versa.  A similar exchange of solos is also occurring between alto and bass.

Will the soloists be singing with the chorus?
 The quartet will sing every chorus, and lead the congregation.

Will there be a conductor? 

No, but whichever singer in the quartet begins a chorus will signal to the organist and the audience when he is ready to begin.

Will sections start over in the event of train wrecks? 

We will slow tempi as necessary to avoid train wrecks…and if necessary we will repeat choruses.

Why are you suggesting costumes? 

It is fun to dress up for the holidays, and so we thought we would invite the audience to be creative.

* * *

Powers Music School presents “Belmont Open Messiah Sing” at  Parish Hall of Payson Park Church, 365 Belmont Street, Belmont on Dec. 23 at 7:30

Mary Beekman leads singers and orchestra in this fun event. Vocal scores are provided. No experience necessary; first-timers are welcome! No advance reservations required. Parish Hall of Payson Park Church, 365 Belmont Street, Belmont, MA. $10 per person, all ages.

Huddersfield Choral Society in 1948 (an inauthentic performance style for which some still yearn)


  1. Useful listing and interesting interviews. But I have to wonder at the statement in the JP Concerts section that “This is the only uncut performance of Messiah in Boston scheduled for this season.” Neither Handel & Haydn nor Boston Baroque takes “cuts” in Messiah (or almost anything else they do, for that matter). Of course, Handel wrote many alternate versions of movements in this work—which he presented often, in different venues and with different forces—but choosing among them cannot be called “cutting.” And from the description it sounds as if JP Concerts will be doing their own selection among the alternatives, not doing them all! Why did they assert that theirs will be “the only uncut performance … in Boston,” and why did you let that claim stand without challenge or comment?

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — November 23, 2012 at 6:23 am

  2. Since BMInt did not have marked-up scores at hand to compare various versions, Peter Terry’s claim will have to be evaluated by attendees. They will be able to decide just how long a night it will have been. I do think Peter succeeded in characterizing his performance so that readers will know what to expect.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 23, 2012 at 8:56 am

  3. why no review of h&h messiah?

    Comment by q — December 14, 2012 at 7:54 am

  4. I was unable to persuade a BMInt reviewer to go– apparently his or her loss, from what I heard of the concert on the 99.5 stream.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 14, 2012 at 8:21 am

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