Historians disagree about why audience members traditionally stand during the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s “Messiah.” One theory is that King George II of England was so moved at the first London performance of the oratorio that he rose. Still, some music historians question whether he even attended the concert.
What is far less debatable is that the “Messiah” is a beloved work that represents the Christmas season for many, much as “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol” do, but with deeper religious significance.
Locals can get their annual dose of Handel’s oratorio at the Kennedy Center, but for those looking for a closer-to-home venue, the National Philharmonic (NP) will give two performances at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda. Stan Engebretson, artistic director of the NP Chorale since its inception and conductor of the “Messiah” performances, said they are the only ones he knows of in Montgomery County.
George Frideric Handel, a German-born composer who became a naturalized British citizen, was formerly known for writing Italian operas. He turned to English-language oratorios not long before composing the “Messiah,” in 1741. Oratorios are different from operas in that they are not dramatized or fully costumed or staged.
The three-part “Messiah,” which focuses on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was first performed in Dublin in 1742, and received its London premiere almost a year later. Although the public was initially unenthusiastic, the oratorio’s popularity grew. Today, it is one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.
For many people, attending a performance of “The Messiah” is an annual holiday tradition, said Engebretson. “It’s like a having a favorite book on the shelf that you smile when you see, thinking, if you can only have time to read it again.” Moreover, he added, “‘The ‘Messiah’ is definitely a signature piece for us.” It is their twelfth performance of the work.
What distinguishes this production is not only the beautiful performing space of the Music Center, but also the large choir and orchestra, Engebretson pointed out. There are musical distinctions as well. “The orchestra’s performances offer quick tempos, and this is a very light reading,” he said. In addition, while some “Messiah” performances include only highlights—like “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” “And the Glory of the Lord” and the iconic “Hallelujah Chorus” — the NP will play the entire work.
The performance will feature four soloists. Tenor Norman Shankle has a long history with the “Messiah.” “I’ve sung it just about every year since I was out of college,” he said. “I love singing Handel, and this is probably some of his most recognizable music. I’ve sung it all over Europe and America. But this is my first time singing [altogether] with the National Philharmonic.”
Shankle emphasized some of the work’s special qualities. “There is so much to talk about in this piece I hardly know where to begin,” he said. “What I think I most enjoy are the small changes of style and ornamentation that change from place to place or sometimes from performance to performance. For those who are singing on stage (soloist and chorus), hearing that unexpected change is thrilling.”
The “Messiah” has special meaning for soprano Esther Heideman whose voice and appearance have reminded many critics of a young Beverly Sills. Heideman made her professional singing debut with the oratorio 1998 with the Minnesota Orchestra. Her career was truly launched in 2000, when the soprano won the Metropolitan Opera Young Artists competition and made her Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center debuts.
“Since [my debut], I have performed the ‘Messiah’ over 100 times, with up to 17 performances in one season,” Heideman said. “I love singing this piece and try to embellish it differently every year. It never gets old. The orchestra, chorus and solo parts all contain magical moments.” In fact, Heideman added, it doesn’t seem like the holidays until she hears the first “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Mezzo-soprano Yvette Smith is a full-time chorus member with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, also sings and understudies roles. She made her debut with another monumental choral work – Mozart’s “Requiem,” in 2000 with Masterworks Chorus.
The “Messiah” is among the more than 40 oratorio and concert works with orchestra she has performed. “I sang it with various groups and churches,” Smith said, “including with the Washington National Cathedral Masterworks Chorus and once before with National Philharmonic a few years back. To me. it is one of the greatest works ever written, with hit after music hit. It becomes a work that each time you hear it, you hear new interpretations and come to love each and every piece along the way. To me. it’s essentially like an opera – filled with emotion.”
In addition to the soloists, NP’s “Messiah” performances feature the nearly 200-voice all-volunteer Chorale. Engebretson noted that the NP is the only metropolitan area organization that features an orchestra with its own chorus – a phenomenon that is rare in the country in general. “This means we come together with many shared performances, which gives us a strong sense of ensemble to showcase the Music Center at Strathmore’s amazing acoustics,” he said.
The National Philharmonic’s performances of Handel’s “Messiah” are at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 17, at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. A free pre-concert lecture will be given at 6:45 p.m. Dec. 16 and 1:45 p.m. Dec. 17. For tickets, $28 to $88, free for ages 7 to 17, visit www.nationalphilharmonic.org or call 301-581-5100. Learn more about this concert on CultureSpotMC here.