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Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra brings Handel’s ‘Messiah’ to Weill Hall

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HANDEL HOLIDAY

What: Nicholas McGegan leads the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale in a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” with guest vocalists Amanda Forsythe, soprano; Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano; Isaiah Bell, tenor; and Philip Cutlip, baritone.
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20
Where: Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park
Tickets: $55 to $125
Reservations: gmc.sonoma.edu or 1-866-955-6040

Although performed consistently since its premiere in 1741, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that Handel’s majestic ”Messiah” became a deeply entrenched tradition of the Christmas season, as important as hanging up the stockings and decorating the tree.

“Before, Christmas music was just what you’d hear in church, and the carols performed by amateurs,” said Nicholas McGegan, music director of the Philharmonic Baroque Orchestra and Chorale. “It was a small, family event ... Now, taking the kids to the “Nutcracker” and the “Messiah” is part of the Christmas ritual.”

British-born McGegan will take his period instrument ensemble and accompanying chorale to Weill Hall at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20, for an unabridged performance of the “Messiah,” one of the best-known works of the baroque era.

“We are doing it complete, so there is no escape,” the wry conductor said in a phone interview from his home in Berkeley. “Weill Hall is my absolute favorite place to play ... I know Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, so this one is a very pleasing double-take.”

The concert will mark the first of three Handel-centric concerts the Philharmonia Baroque will perform at Weill Hall during the 2015-’16 season. If you miss this one, you’ll have two more chances to hear Handel performed by the historically informed orchestra and some of the leading singers of our time.

On Feb. 14, McGegan and the orchestra will perform a gala concert that includes some of Handel’s greatest hits, including arias sung by American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham.

“It’s the orchestra’s 35th anniversary, and my 30th (with the orchestra),” McGegan said of the gala concert, which will also be given at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre. “Susan Graham is one of the great stars of our day ... and we’re doing the Handel ‘Fireworks” and a bit of the ‘Water Music.’ It’s kind of a Handel pops, without the ‘Hallulejah’ chorus.”

McGegan is also looking forward to the May concert at Weill, where Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and countertenor Andreas Scholl will join voices on duets from various operas and oratorios written by Handel.

“They are both altos and great friends,” he said. “Very often when you have two singers, one and one actually make about five, because duets are the most gorgeous bits in any opera.”

For the “Messiah,” McGegan is excited about working with American soprano Amanda Forsythe, a regular soloist with baroque ensembles across the country, along with mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle, tenor Isaiah Bell and baritone Philip Cutlip.

“Amanda is coming from Boston, and we’ve worked at Tanglewood together,” he said. “But this will be her first time in Weill Hall.”

Here are some of the conductor’s reflections on Handel, the man, and his music:

Q: How does an early music version of the “Messiah” sound different from a symphonic rendition on modern instruments?

A: The instruments might be a lot softer, because the halls weren’t so big in the 18th century. So it’s a slightly more intimate experience. Of course, Weill Hall is not exactly small, but it has extremely good acoustics, which means it will not sound puny but rich and wonderful, just like it should.

Tempos will be brisker, for a number of reasons. For a start, our chorus is very, very good, and so they actually sing the things at a reasonable tempo, which not everybody can. The soprano, Amanda Forsythe, is an absolutely splendid singer and a real virtuoso ... That’s the fun of it, to hear all the razzle-dazzle.

HANDEL HOLIDAY

What: Nicholas McGegan leads the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale in a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” with guest vocalists Amanda Forsythe, soprano; Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano; Isaiah Bell, tenor; and Philip Cutlip, baritone.
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20
Where: Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park
Tickets: $55 to $125
Reservations: gmc.sonoma.edu or 1-866-955-6040

Really, it’s all about the music, and really about the words, so I hope the words will be very clear and people will get emotionally involved in our performance. It will be an emotional event, not just a historically correct one ... We’re out there to be entertainers, and our job is to really thrill the audience. That’s what it’s all about.

Q: What is it about the music of Handel that speaks to us over the centuries?

A: He’s a composer of enormous heart, and so his music speaks from the heart to the heart ... The heights of passion and the depths of despair are in his music. That speaks to people, whether they’re wearing an 18th-century costume and a wig or whether it’s people like us today.

He was a very soulful man, but we know very little about him. We know that he was a bachelor. And he was a bit of a piggy when it came to food. From looking at his portrait, you can see he was a chubby chap. And he had a sardonic sense of humor. Some people said he could look like a black cloud, and something would amuse him, and it was as if the sun came out.

Q: How did the “Messiah” become connected to Christmas, after it was originally performed during Easter?

A: The “Messiah” is a glorious piece of brilliant music, and there’s very little really good music for Christmas. The Bach Christmas Oratorio was written to be performed over six days. It’s a long slog if you do all of it on one day, which Bach never intended.

One of the reasons Handel did it at Easter was purely practical. The London theaters were closed during the Lenten period, so there was a theater gone begging, and an orchestra unemployed ... and the audience came because they had nothing else to do.

Q: You are using the Foundling Hospital score. What is the story behind it?

A: The Foundling Hospital is the main orphanage in London, and Handel was a patron of it. In 1751, he started to lose his eyesight. So for the last nine years of his life he was effectively blind ... Other people would conduct, and he would show up and do the concert for the orphanage, and it became a big money raiser for the charity. He gave a score and a set of orchestra parts to the Foundling Hospital so they could perform it (after his death). It’s the only set of orchestra parts that we have, so it’s useful. We have a couple of scores, but they don’t have actual details.

Most people perform a mishmash of different versions thrown together ... the flashier bits. We’re doing bits of when it was first performed in Dublin, up until he died. It’s one particular version that he played.

Q: You’ve conducted the “Messiah” about 150 times. Have you ever performed it in Dublin?

A: No, I haven’t. The hall doesn’t exist anymore. It was pulled down in the 19th century, and it’s a beautiful garden. There’s a lovely sculpture, and next door is the George Frideric Handel Hotel. In 1998, the hotel had just opened, and it had a cafe with a sign that said “George Frideric Handel Happy Hour All Day.” Handel liked his food and drink very much, and he would be absolutely thrilled.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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