Opera performs Mozart's version of Handel's 'Messiah' for the first time

Posted: Friday, December 10, 2004

The Juneau Lyric Opera's traditional holiday performance of "Messiah" will include a fuller sound this year, as the 29-piece Amalga Chamber Orchestra joins in for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's re-orchestration of the Georg Fridrich Handel baroque oratorio.

This is the first year that the opera has tried Mozart's version, notable for its layered string and wind parts. Music director William Todd Hunt learned of the arrangement two years ago and decided this year would be appropriate for the change. It's the JLO's 30th season.

"Messiah" plays at 8 p.m. Saturday at St. Paul's Catholic Church, and 3 p.m. Sunday at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. Tickets are $12 for adults, $9 for students and seniors and available at Hearthside Books or at the door.

Hunt founded the Amalga Chamber Orchestra, envisioning a classical, Mozart-style orchestra. It played its first show in winter 2003. Of its 29 members, more than half are string players and all but a few play in the Juneau Symphony.

Handel spent most of his life as an opera composer, and it shows in the way "Messiah" is broken down into segments. The first part begins with the Christmas portion, dealing with the birth of the Christ child and the idea of a redeeming Messiah. Part II includes the Hallelujah chorus. The third part deals with the death and the resurrection of the Messiah.

The complete "Messiah" runs about 212 hours. The JLO's version, about 70 minutes long with no intermission, includes most of part one, the Hallelujah chorus and excerpts from Part III. There are three soloists: soprano (Kathleen Wayne), tenor (Brett Crawford) and bass (Philippe Damerval); and no alto.

"Some of the people that sang it last time are kind of amazed at the amount of sound and the complexity of things that are coming out of the orchestra," Hunt said.

The German-born Handel (1685-1759), one of the most well-known composers of the baroque period, wrote "Messiah" in 24 days during the late summer of 1741. It premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742.

In the 1780s, imperial court official Baron von Swieten hired Mozart to re-orchestrate several of Handel's oratorios, including "Messiah," for a series of concerts for the Viennese court.

Mozart kept most of the music the same, but added more wind players and filled out the string parts, Hunt said. The idea was to keep the tradition of baroque music alive, but to fill out the sound to make it seem less old-fashioned. Some of Handel's ideas seemed archaic to popular audiences, just 45 years after the oratorio's premiere.

"I found out about it (Mozart's version) only within the past few years, and it was fascinating to me that you see how Mozart viewed this piece through his own eyes and own talents," Hunt said. "You get to see on paper what he thought of different ideas, and the way he handled certain things and also the way that the orchestra had evolved."

Mozart's version was popular in the 19th century, as tastes tended toward larger orchestras, Hunt said. In the 20th century, baroque arrangements enjoyed a resurgence and Handel's version was revived. Mozart's arrangement is now quite rare, Hunt said.

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