This Christmas season, musicians around the country are continuing a centuries-old holiday tradition: performing George Frideric Handel's Baroque masterpiece, Messiah.
In Washington, D.C., the National Symphony Orchestra has finished its 58th annual performance of the work. This year, guest conductor Matthew Halls led the orchestra, which was accompanied by four soloists and the University of Maryland Concert Choir.
Though the performance marked Halls' debut with the NSO, he is not a newcomer to Messiah.
"I must say I've probably performed this work several hundred times as a singer, a keyboard player and now more recently as a conductor," Halls says.
Soprano soloist Kiera Duffy says she can't even remember how many times she's performed Messiah: "This is probably between my 10th and 15th ... I lost count," she says.
Still, Duffy says familiarity doesn't make performing the work any easier.
"Messiah is extremely difficult," she says. "I think a lot of people, because they're so used to hearing Messiah, think, 'Oh ... it's just another Messiah.' But actually, Messiah presents a lot of challenges for all the musicians involved — and certainly for the soloists and for me. There's a level of comfort that comes from doing it again and again. 'Rejoice' — that's the tour-de-force soprano aria in Messiah, and it's gotten easier and easier, so it's nice to finally enjoy singing that aria instead of being petrified."
Messiah's text is taken mostly from the Old Testament of the Bible and divided into three parts.
Says Halls: "Essentially, it's focusing on different aspects of the Messianic prophesy — that is, the birth of the Messiah, the events surrounding the passions and the rejection of the Messiah and, of course, the sounding of the trumpets on the Day of Judgment."
But, Halls adds, it's not just the religious story line that explains the enduring attraction of Messiah.
"We're a dance culture today, and a lot of our popular music is based on dance," Halls says. "And that has resonance with the baroque because a lot of the music for the baroque was dance-inspired. So there's this infectious, underlying rhythm behind most of the music in the Messiah, and I think that people really like that. They like the inevitability of the dance pulse and the way in which the composer manipulates the melody around that, and I think it's that sort of underlying rhythmic motor, which Baroque music has, that gives it its fizz."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This Christmas season, musicians around the country are upholding a centuries-old holiday tradition: performing Handel's Baroque masterpiece "Messiah." And even the pros get nervous or wring their hands over how to make what's old new again, especially with a two hour-long showstopper like this one. But all that effort is worth it because to concertgoers, nothing beats Handel for the holidays.
KIERA DUFFY: It's not Christmas time without the "Messiah." My name is Kiera Duffy. This is my debut with National Symphony. And I am the soprano soloist for the NSO's performance of "Messiah 2011."
CORNISH: We visited Duffy at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, D.C., where the National Symphony Orchestra was rehearsing for their 58th annual performance of the piece.
The "Messiah" composition is an oratorio, which means it's written with the soloist, choir and orchestra in mind. This year, the guest conductor Matthew Halls leads the orchestra, accompanied by four soloists and the University of Maryland Concert Choir.
MATTHEW HALLS: Guesting with orchestras, it's a little bit like test driving cars. Sometimes they have a slightly dodgy clutch. Sometimes they work really smoothly and it feels very comfortable. And working with the National Symphony Orchestra is a little like sitting in a Rolls Royce.
CORNISH: But rest assured, neither conductor nor soprano are test driving the music.
HALLS: I mean I must say I've probably performed this work several hundred times in different capacities; as a singer, as a keyboard player, and then more recently as a conductor.
DUFFY: This is probably between my 10th and 15th. I was trying to count actually before I got here but I've lost count.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CORNISH: Not that it makes performing it any easier, says the soprano Kiera Duffy.
DUFFY: I think a lot of people, because they're so used to hearing "Messiah" think, oh, it's just another "Messiah." But actually "Messiah" presents a lot of challenges for all the musicians involved, certainly for the soloists and certainly for me. So, you know, there's a level comfort that comes with doing it time and time again. For example, "Rejoice" is always been, you know, that's sort of the tour de force soprano aria.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANDEL'S "MESSIAH")
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
I do love singing "Rejoice" now, I have to say. That really fits me like a glove. It's an aria where you get to show sort of your virtuosity.
It's a high energy piece and people really enjoy listening to it. And I hope I can enhance that even more for them when I sing it.
"Messiah" at it's core is storytelling. So from a theatrical standpoint, you really have to engage the audience. You really have to connect with them in retelling a story that they're very familiar with.
HALLS: Essentially, it's focusing on different aspects of the whole messianic prophesy; and that is the birth of the Messiah, the events surrounding the Passion and the rejection of the Messiah. And then, of course, the sounding of the trumpets sounding at the day of judgment.
CORNISH: But conductor Matthew Halls says it's not just the Biblical narrative that explains the enduring attraction of Handel's "Messiah."
HALLS: We're a dance culture today and a lot of our popular music is based on dance. And that has resonance with the Baroque because a lot of the music for the Baroque was dance inspired. So there's this infectious underlying rhythm behind most of the music in the "Messiah." And I think that people really like that. They like the inevitability of the dance pulse. And I think it's that sort of underlying rhythmic motor which gives it it's fizz.
CORNISH: That and the chorus that makes this epic piece instantly recognizable.
CHORUS: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah. Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUFFY: What about the "Hallelujah Chorus?" You know, there's this weird tradition where everybody stands...
CORNISH: A tradition that goes back to "Messiah's" first London performance in the 1700s. As the story goes, King George II, who was in the audience, stood up during the singing of the "Hallelujah Chorus." No one knows why for sure. But the rest of the audience stood, as well, following protocol. And today, crowds still rise to their feet; something Matthew Halls says can be a little nerve-wracking.
HALLS: Usually it's met with a rousing applause afterwards and one feels it's time to go home. And, of course, there's part the third immediately after that. And so, I suppose there's always this humorous voice in me that's going, how are we going to stop the audience from leaving the building?
CHORUS: (Singing) And he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah...
DUFFY: You hear the "Hallelujah Chorus" and it's Christmas. It's Christmastime.
CHORUS: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah. Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah. Hallelujah, hallelujah.
CORNISH: That was Soprano Kiera Duffy and conductor Matthew Halls, on the NSO's performance of "The "Messiah."
CHORUS: (Singing) Hallelujah.
CORNISH: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.