Juneau Lyric Opera is bringing back Handel's most popular choral piece for the first time in three years

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2001

L ena Simmons first sang Handel's glorious oratorio "Messiah" in West Virginia and subsequently with the Juneau Lyric Opera in 1988.

"It's incredibly beautiful and far more difficult than people think it is," said Simmons, a Juneau resident since 1981. "It's one of those holiday traditions that, almost everywhere you go in the United States, someone close by is doing it."

One of the most renowned pieces of sacred music, "Messiah" will be presented by the Juneau Lyric Opera at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Chapel by the Lake. Susan Horst is the director and conductor of the Juneau Lyric Opera production, and the chorus of 77 includes some of Horst's students at Juneau-Douglas High School.

"We have four wonderful soloists - Joyce Parry Moore, Cyndee Simpson-Sugar, Morgan Reed and Thomas Gross - and an orchestra of 10," Horst said. "One of the most marvelous things about this production is that we have a dozen people in the chorus for whom this is their first major choral work. I think it is fortunate that Juneau offers those opportunities."

Horst pointed out it has been three years since "Messiah" has been performed in Juneau, "and people need their 'Messiah' fix."

One of the most experienced singers in the production is Sandra Strandtmann, 66, who began singing "Messiah" as an alto of 16 in high school and is now performing as a soprano.

"This production is really exciting because I know two of the soloists who are coming from Fairbanks," Strandtmann said. "Morgan Reed has a great bass voice, and he was a teacher when I was a teacher in Fairbanks and after he retired became an opera singer."

Strandtmann noted that local choruses have "gotten better and better the last couple of years, and I think this will be one of the best."

Striving to be one of the best is Natzuko McMahon, who moved to Juneau from Japan in July after marrying local carpenter Rob McMahon in May. McMahon was urged by her husband's friend Susan Auer, president of the Lyric Opera, to try her hand at "Messiah."

"I can't speak English very well, and I don't have friends here," McMahon, 33, said. She began singing three years ago and has sung Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony" in Japan. "I can read music and that helped a lot, but I didn't understand what's going on." At rehearsals, McMahon sits next to Auer, who tries to explain the proceedings.

Auer is singing "Messiah" for the second time. "It's just a lot of fun, great fun," she said. "I am a pianist by avocation and have accompanied this on the piano. It's a lot more fun to sing it than it is to play it."

Born in Germany, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) resided in England after 1712. He composed for the harpsichord and the organ. He wrote operas, orchestral pieces and occasional pieces such as "Water Music." "Messiah," first presented in Dublin in 1742, takes its title from the Greek name for Christ. "Messiah" has a more contemplative character than Handel's other 31 oratorios and is clearly intended as public prayer or worship.

An oratorio is a musical composition employing a chorus, an orchestra and soloists. It rarely uses stage action or scenery. It is named for the oratory, a small church chapel used for prayer, because the original of this form was performed in an oratory at a church in Rome.

The libretto of "Messiah" was penned by Handel's friend Charles Jennes, who based his verses on the King James Bible, chiefly the book of Isaiah but also Lamentations, Psalms, Luke and Matthew. There are 53 distinct parts, some choral, some orchestral.

The piece is divided into three sections. The first deals with predictions of and the actual birth of Jesus. The second deals with sin and salvation, while the third holds out the promise of resurrection.

Tickets for "Messiah" are $12, $9 for seniors and students.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.

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