On my desk- Messiah

One of the many scores on my desk this week is Handel’s Messiah, which I suppose is no surprise to anyone given the time of year.

Actually, it has been a few years since I last conducted Messiah. The last time I did it was one of those rather rare occasions when one does the same work back to back with different orchestras. In this case, it was four days apart on different continents. The second band and soloist line-up was probably the weaker of the two, but what really struck me was just how easy everything felt the second time around.

I had the same feeling the first time I did back to back performances of a concert, the Elgar in fact. Somewhere in the 2nd movement on night two, which was being televised, no less, I realized I was so much looser and more relaxed than I had ever been for a concerto. For a very dangerous moment I started letting my mind wander to thoughts of how easy it must be for the Yo-Yo’s and Perlman’s to be playing their thousandth Dvorak or Tchaik and a gazillion bucks a night, but then pulled myself back from the brink and finished the show.

One of my first gigs with an international orchestra featured two works to be recorded by the same composer, both of which I knew very well, but one I had conducted and one I had not. The first piece to do was the one I had never done before, and it went very well, but I remember thinking the first run-through felt like it took years off my life. I had conducted the second piece once before on a very short schedule with a rather weak band, so it’s not as if I’d lived with it for decades, but the first go through felt effortless- in fact, we recorded the piece in one take and one patch for a noise.  

Funnily, I used to hate the Messiah, partly because I must have played it 500 times for inept choral conductors (no offense to the good ones out there!) on very little rehearsal, and partly because I always felt it presented a somewhat triumphalist view of Christianity that I was uncomfortable with in modern America. I much prefer the more gentle, meditative outlook of the St Matthew Passion. I still have problems with the libretto, and still find it hard to keep a straight face when I hear a choir singing “we like sheep,” especially in Wales. However, I long ago fell in love with the music, and it is a marvel to play through at the piano. Handel’s part writing is just magical.

Last time I did this piece I did something I rarely do, which is to assign specific metronome markings to each movement. After all, there are over 40 numbers in the damn thing, and it is all too easy to conduct everything at 88 or something like that. The UNIVERSAL TEMPO can be death to music. So far, none of these tempi seems crazy to me, but I’m a bit annoyed I didn’t make more notes on process- I tried to be quite cerebral in thinking about tempo relationships relative to motivic relationships and parallels in the libretto, but there are couple I really can’t remember the origin of.

The highlight of my last Messiah run was the singing of Donald Maxwell. If you’ve never had one of the world’s biggest bass voices right next to your head, I highly recommend it. When he sang “I will shake the heavens and the Earth,” I felt it in my sternum and my skull. I was quite touched afterwards that he obviously had concluded I was in someway famous- it’s interesting how differently people treat you depending on the size of cheese they perceive you to be.

This time around, I’m doing it with a professional choir (in addition to a professional orchestra), which should be very interesting as pro choirs are a rarity. Only one rehearsal on the day of the concert, which is normal but frustrating- perhaps I can go to America three days before and conduct it there to warm up?

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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4 comments on “On my desk- Messiah”

  1. John

    Glad to hear you are doing the whole thing, I’ve only had the pleasure of singing it once without cuts, last year in Edmonton Canada with Bill Eddins. It was a fabulous. I, like you, have done the work a few 100s of times, and have had horrid conductors for many performances. However, I do love the work. My eyes were first opened up to the grand possibilities of it when Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort brought the definitive performance to CD a number of years ago, besides the tenor and soprano, the soloists are touch week, but band is great, and the choir is fabulous. (YES someone else other than Gardiner CAN make a successful baroque oratorio CD – and do it MUCH better).

    Enjoy the season!

  2. Jen

    I just got back from a weekend of performing the whole thing-three times! Three nights in a row! Whoo! The bassist was so loud, I thought I would need earplugs. Fantastic!

    When is Mahler in Pendleton? Can I really come play??

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hey Jen-

    You must be knackered! I did it one year for a choral conductor in Ohio three days in a row, and he took it at glacial tempi and the bass was awful. The Trumpet Shall Sound should be the moment where you perk up and get a little boost of adrenaline before the end, but this was more of “oh shit, he’s starting Trumpet….”

    You can come to Pendleton anytime! Our next Mahler will be spring of 09, but we’ve got a few fab programs left this year- I’ll email you and our exec dir.

    Be well!


  4. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Messiah- post concert report

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