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Barry Asch (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Branford Messiah draws a big crowd every year. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Branford Messiah in the First Congregational Church in Branford (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Branford Messiah (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Barry Asch of Cappella Cantorum on stage at The Kate. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Branford Messiah (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Capella Cantorum at The Kate (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
The New Haven Symphony Orchestra (Photo courtesy of Katie Bonner Russo )
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William Boughton was eight years old and a treble boy in the church choir in England when he first participated in a performance of Handel’s Messiah.
“That was a long time ago. And I think I’ve performed it every Christmas since,” he says.
After his start in the choir, Boughton, of Guilford, went on to an illustrious career as a musician, composer, and conductor. The music director of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, he will be conductor of the orchestra’s performances of Messiah this season, including one in New Haven and another in Madison. They are among at least six performances of Messiah in the coming weeks along the Connecticut shoreline.
The performances include a Messiah Sing-Along with the Yale Glee Club in New Haven, performances by both the New Haven Symphony Orchestra and the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Capella Cantorum will offer its 10th annual Messiah Sing or Listen in Old Saybrook. Branford Messiah, in its 31st year, will feature both professionals and experienced community singers willing to participate in a series of rehearsals beforehand.
All of them promise to be a powerful experience for those who attend and participate. And those who are experienced with Messiah say there are several things it is might be fun to know before you go.
1. George Frideric (or Frederick) Handel was something like the Andrew Lloyd Webber (think Jesus Christ Superstar, The Phantom of the Opera) of his time. “He made his money writing operas. At one point he had seven operas running concurrently in London. He didn’t work for the royalty, or the church. He made his money through the box office. And he knew how to please a crowd. Absolutely,” says Boughton. “His operas have everything of human nature, from the most sublime to the most blood curdling.” Handel brought that ability to please a crowd to Messiah.
2. Messiah was originally intended to be a work performed at Easter. The first third of the work is about the birth of Jesus. The second is about the death of Jesus. And the third is about the resurrection. Since it has come to be associated with Christmas, some performances, particularly the sing-alongs, focus primarily on the first part, and run for about an hour or so. Full performances of the entire work run for about 2 ½ hours.
3. Even those performances that focus on the first part often also slip in the Hallelujah Chorus, which falls at the end of the second part. Most Messiah sing-alongs include this, which is probably the most popular and fun pieces of Baroque music of all time. “I don’t think you can do a Messiah Sing-Along and not do the Hallelujah Chorus,” says Jeffrey Douma, a professor of conducting at the Yale School of Music, who is also the director of the Yale Glee Club and Yale Choral Artists.
4. Messiah is as much about the community that takes part in it, as it is about the music. Branford Messiah was founded by the late Ettie Minor Luckey, a cellist, in 1987, and is a labor of love still performed in her memory.
5. The text of Messiah, written by Charles Jennens, is considered a masterwork in and of itself. It is drawn directly from the King James version of the Bible, most of it from the Old Testament, and also includes some psalms from The Book of Common Prayer. While drawn from a sacred text, it is a work as much for the theater as a church and the story is told in a way that, for many, has universal appeal. Boughton notes it starts with an overture in the key of E minor, “one of the most hollow keys you can imagine. This is the world without religion. A world without hope. Man is making a mess of the world. And then there is the birth of Christ to save everybody,” he says. “ “It’s a fantastic work. It’s a work of real drama.”
6. Handel employed “word painting,” which means not just putting notes to words, but making the words live through rhythm and pitch. “And he does that in this work probably better than most composers,” says Boughton. As oft cited example of this is one of the first arias, from Isaiah 40:4, “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.” In some arrangements, the word “low” is sung in a lower note than the word before it, the word “straight” with one long note, and the word “crooked” alternating between two notes.
7. The premiere of Messiah was in a concert hall in Dublin, Ireland, and proceeds went to a charity benefiting orphans. Many performances follow that tradition, including the Yale Glee Club Sing-Along, which will donate part of its proceeds to people who are homeless in New Haven. The New Haven Symphony Orchestra donates some proceeds to a soup kitchen. “It’s nice to know that it is going to those in need this time of year,” Boughton says.
8. As one of the most popular pieces of classical music ever, it is performed so often that some professional musicians are, off the record, just a little bit weary of it. Others cannot get enough. Douma, who has conducted it dozens of times, counts himself among the latter. “I never grow tired of it,” he says. “It always seems fresh. It always seems full of life. Every aria is a masterpiece. And every chorus is so beautifully composed.”
9. For those who love it, it is considered all the more remarkable because it was composed by Handel in about three weeks.
10. It’s Messiah. Not The Messiah. If you call it The Messiah, you will be identified as the Messiah newbie that you are. And, even if you do and you are, that’s OK. Those who love Messiah will be eager to bring you into the fold.
Barry Asch, who will conduct the performance at The Kate, says all are welcome.
“Anyone can just walk in,” he says. “You can sing if you want. Or people can just sit back and listen.”
His favorite part?
“Really, just the whole thing. It’s just marvelous to put together.”
He loves the way Messiah brings people together at the holidays.
Ann Drinan, the executive director of Branford Messiah, agrees.
“The church is standing-room-only every year. It is a community outpouring of support. To give this gift of music to the community at the holiday is always something special.”
She says thinking of Ettie Minor Luckey and her husband still brings her to tears.
“It is a very emotional tribute to a beautiful couple who symbolized all that is best about Short Beach,” she says. “They were free spirits with a total love of life.”
Douma of the Yale Glee Club says he is grateful for how the sing-along has grown over the years.
“Usually Battell Chapel is packed,” he says. “I think that’s an indication of how this time of year we are longing for community and connection and we’re looking for tradition and I’m just very grateful for the way in which the community has embraced this. It’s a time of year when people are really needing it.”
He says many people connect with their beliefs, whatever they might be, through music.
“We hear songs and they bring back memories of childhood and family and community,” he says. “There is no substitute for live performances and creating music in the moment with other human beings.”
While Jennens may have written the words, and Handel the notes, the real work of art is the performance itself, Douma says.
“The work of art does not happen until the performers get into the room,” Douma says. “It’s like helping Van Gogh finish the painting. Or helping Steinbeck finish the novel. They need us to complete the works of art for them.”
For Boughton, who has created his own edition of Messiah, Christmas would not be Christmas without Messiah.
“It’s a little like the Nutcracker, and Dicken’s Christmas Carol...I think there are abiding reasons why people are fascinated with this,” Boughton says. “Not only is it great music, it’s a fantastic story. It’s a work of real drama. This is not just about people singing and classical musicians playing. It is a real drama and I always try to get the singers to tell that story, and live that story whilst they are performing. There is joy, and pain, and suffering, and in the end, exultation.”
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