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Handel's 'Messiah' returns to town after a long absence

Posted: December 15, 2011 - 12:03am

It’s been awhile since Juneau has been treated to a live performance of Handel’s “Messiah.”

Local organist J. Allan MacKinnon used to produce the work annually, said Bruce Simonson, founder of the Juneau Bach Society, but the tradition has been fallow for more than 10 years. Simonson himself produced the work only once in Juneau, about 15 years ago.

This year the “Messiah” is back, in an ambitious joint project organized by Juneau Lyric Opera that involves the combined efforts of the Bach Society, the Alaska Youth Choir. and choruses from both Juneau Douglas and Thunder Mountain High Schools; in addition to Simonson, conductors Missouri Smyth (AYC), Richard Moore (JDHS), and Tyree Pini (TMHS) have been preparing the piece for performance. The first part of the work will be presented twice this weekend, with a full production of all three parts scheduled for April.

Most performances of the piece focus on part one, the Nativity, making the work suitable for Christmastime, but when parts two and three are added, the piece is better suited to Easter and spring, Simonson said. The libretto, written by Charles Jennens, is taken directly from the King James Version of the Bible, and follows not only the story of Christ’s birth, but also the story of his death and resurrection.

“It’s really prophecy, fulfilment and redemption — those are the three parts, but people always hear the Christmas stuff,” he said.

The local production’s April timing also reflects Handel’s own intentions for the work; he scheduled the first ever performance in April 1742.

The full work spans nearly two and a half hours — a daunting prospect, but one Juneau singers were ready for, Simonson said.

“There is so much interest in doing these things that are really challenging (in Juneau),” he said.

And the full piece, while huge and difficult, is perfect for community productions.

“People know it, it’s in English and the music is quite singable once you get the hang of each one,” he said. “But there are 20 choruses.”

The work’s accessibility was intentional on Handel’s part, he said.

“To say it was intended to be popular almost has a negative connotation, but it really does appeal to a very broad range of people,” he said. “It’s an art, a real art, to be able to create something that has substance that is apprehendable by a lot of people at once.”

Simonson said this approach sets Handel apart from Bach; the two composers, both born in Germany in 1685, have less in common than one might think.

“I think the key is that Handel was an impressario, he presented his own music,” he said. “It was designed for the theater, not for the church. ‘Messiah’ was never intended to be a church service.”

“Bach, on the other hand, his employer was the town and the church, so he was writing church services. I guess ultimately he was writing for God instead of a popular audience. So he had — I guess one way to say this — he had the luxury and the duty to write things that are really quite sophisticated and intelligent and deep, with a lot of philosophy, which you don’t find in Handel so much — it’s really in the moment and the joy of the music and being swept away by it.”

Simonson added that he was reluctant to use the word “sophisticated” to distinguish Bach from Handel, as it implies something negative about Handel.

“Handel and Bach approach their art in different ways but they both create masterpieces, they are just genius at what they do.”

Simonson said part of the full experience of preparing “Messiah” and other works for performance in Juneau is getting a chance to study the music as a group; he encourages all the singers to learn the other singers’ parts to familiarize themselves with how the music works.

“It takes a little more time but then you can really see what you’re doing here parallels a part another section of the choir is doing, and you can see how it fits together.”

Particularly exciting about this performance is the abundance of young singers from the Alaska Youth Choir, and JDHS and TMHS choirs. All three will contribute about 20 singers each for a total of 60 young singers. Simonson, who sang the work himself as a young man, joked that “Messiah” should be a graduation requirement.

“I don’t think anybody should really be able to graduate from high school until they’ve sung one of these parts,” he said. “Put it up there with being able to solve a quadratic formula or whatever.”

Some of the young singers will be featured in solos, as will other adult singers who are new to town.

About 50 adult singers will be joining the youth choruses, and all will be accompanied by about a dozen Southeast musicians, including Juneau violinist Steve Tada and Hoonah cellist Dave Austin.

The audience will be invited to sing along during the “Hallelujah” chorus, for which music will be provided.

Simonson began the JBS after being inspired by a workshop in Eugene, Ore., led by internationally famous German conductor and Bach expert Helmuth Rilling. At that time Simonson lived in Kodiak, arriving in Alaska from Oregon in 1981, and began a group there before relocating to Juneau in 1988, bringing his love of Bach with him.

Some members of the Juneau group have been with him ever since, focusing mainly on Bach’s cantatas and picking up a working knowledge of German in the process. They have repeated only a couple of the cantatas over that time: Cantata 137, “Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren” (“Praise the Lord, the mighty King of honour”) and Canata 80, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A mighty fortress is our God”); the latter, repeated last weekend at Northern Light Church, featured soloist Kathleen Wayne, who also performed it the first time, in 1990.

Simonson said the group works on a composer other than Bach about every other year, but keeps the cantatas at the heart of their repertoire.

“Bach wrote 200 cantatas so I figure if I do four a year, it will take me 50 years — I gotta get going!”

What: Handel’s Messiah, Part 1, performed by the Juneau Bach Society, with the Alaska Youth Choir, JDHS and TMHS choirs, adult community chorus, soloists, and chamber orchestra. Conducted by Bruce Simonson. Other conductors helping prepare the music include Missouri Smyth (AYC ) Richard Moore (JDHS ) and Tyree Pini (TMHS )

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec 17, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 18

Where: Northern Light United Church

Details: Tickets $15; $10 students/seniors, at bookstores, the JACC, and the door.

Upcoming events:

Spring soloist auditions, Jan. 20

Soloist masterclass: March 17

Conductor masterclass: March 24

Performances of Handel’s Messiah: April 27, 28 and 29

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