Sunday, December 21, 2014 • 3:00 p.m.
Seattle First Free Methodist Church
Seattle Chamber Singers
Clinton Smith, conductor
Angela Mortellaro, soprano
Melissa Plagemann, mezzo-soprano
Brad Benoit, tenor
Jeffrey Beruan, bass
Georg Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Messiah, HWV 56
About the Concert
A pivotal point in history, the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah or “anointed one,” is the subject of Handel’s 1742 oratorio. A long-standing OSSCS performing tradition, the oratorio raised enough money at its Dublin premiere to procure the release of 142 indebted prisoners, who were thus given the opportunity to experience new life, a gift that countless Christians have experienced through their faith in Jesus over the past two millennia.
About the Soloists
Soprano Angela Mortellaro, has captivated audiences from the outset of her young career. Described as “beautiful to watch on stage,” the “richness” of her voice, the skilled delivery of “dazzling vocal pyrotechnics,” and her innate acting have made her a singer in high demand. The 2013–2014 season saw her: return to Opera Philadelphia for Anna (Nabucco), sing Adele (Die Fledermaus) for Sarasota Opera, premiere Jean Acker in Dominic Argento’s Dream of Valentino for Minnesota Opera and make an exciting company and role debut singing the title role of Thaïs for Florida Grand Opera. Her 2014–2015 season includes reprises of Gretel for Minnesota Opera and Violetta for Opera North along with two world premieres: Doris Parker in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird for Opera Philadelphia and Josie in The Manchurian Candidate for Minnesota Opera. Learn more: angelamortellaro.com
Mezzo-soprano Melissa Plagemann has been praised by audiences and the press for her “clear, burnished voice” (Tacoma News Tribune) and “attractively expressive mezzo” (Crosscut Seattle). She performs frequently with the finest musical organizations throughout the Pacific Northwest, and is rapidly becoming known for the passion and musical intelligence she brings to performances on opera and concert stages alike. The 2013–2014 season saw her debut with Vespertine Opera as Bianca in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, a return to Pacific Northwest Ballet for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, OSSCS performances of Mozart’s Requiem and Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and a recital of Schumann and Bolcom for the Icicle Creek Chamber Music Series. Among her engagements this season are PNB’s The Nutcracker and Handel’s Messiah with the Tacoma Symphony. Learn more: melissaplagemann.com
Tenor Brad Benoit sang many roles with Minnesota Opera during three years in its Resident Artist Program, including Ruiz in Verdi’s Il trovatore, Arlecchino and Lampwick in The Adventures of Pinocchio, Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville, Gabriele in Casanova’s Homecoming, Lord Cecil in Roberto Devereux, Parpignol in La bohème, the Third Jew in Salome, Gastone in La traviata, and later, as a guest artist, Pong in Turandot. In 2011 he was a featured soldier in the premiere of Kevin Puts’ Silent Night and covered Nicklaus Sprink, a role he sang at the last minute on opening night from the side of the stage to rave reviews. This season he sings Kaspar in Amahl and the Night Visitors with the Minnesota Orchestra, El Remendado in Bizet’s Carmen with Minnesota Opera and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate with the Mankato Symphony.
Bass Jeffrey Beruan is an important emerging artist who possesses a rich, sonorous and striking voice that moves with elegance and agility. His singing has been described as “intensely dramatic,” “melodious,” and “powerful.” Chautauqua Daily News proclaimed, “Jeffrey Beruan proved that there are no small parts by giving us a splendid Angelotti impressive in stature, good looks and rich baritone.” Reviewing his performance in Rigoletto at Caramoor, The New York Times said: “Jeffrey Beruan sang with a mellifluous bass and chilling conviction as Sparafucile, the assassin.” The 2014–2015 season sees Mr. Beruan in debut performances with Washington Concert Opera (I Capuleti e i Montecchi), Florida Grand Opera (Madama Butterfly), Florentine Opera (Elmer Gantry) and Opera Southwest (Amleto), and a return to Portland Opera in a reprise of Zuniga in Carmen. Learn more: wolvertonartists.com
Georg Frideric Handel
Messiah, HWV 56
Handel was born in Halle, Germany, on February 23, 1685, and died in London on April 14, 1759. He composed Messiah between August 22 and September 14 of 1741. The oratorio was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742, under the direction of the composer. In addition to a quartet of vocal soloists and choir, the work calls for 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord and strings.
Handel, renowned in his day as an organist and as a highly prolific writer of Italian operas and English oratorios, was born in Germany in 1685 about a month before J.S. Bach. He received his musical training in Italy, and later became 18th-century England’s “national composer.” Between February and November 1741, Handel—suffering at the age of 56 from various ailments, both financial and physical—withdrew increasingly from public life. At some point that year, the composer received from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the governors of Dublin’s three major charitable institutions an invitation to travel to that city to aid the charities through the performance of his music. Handel was well known in Dublin as a church-music composer, and his works were often played there to benefit charities. It may thus have been this invitation that provided the incentive for Handel to compose “a new sacred Oratorio.” In July of 1741, Charles Jennens, who was responsible for the texts of Handel’s oratorios Israel in Egypt and Saul, gave the struggling Handel the libretto of Messiah, a compilation of biblical texts from both the Old and New Testaments.
On August 22, Handel began to set Jennens’ text to music. He finished the first part of his new oratorio (which deals with the prophecy of Christ’s coming and his nativity) in six days, the second part (which describes Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, the spread of his gospel, the resistance of the heathen, and the vision of the ultimate triumph of the gospel in the establishment of God’s kingdom) in nine days, and the third part (which celebrates the gift of resurrection and eternal life offered to all through Christ’s victory over death) in six more days, with two or three additional days for completing the orchestration. Regarding Handel’s state of mind during Messiah’s composition, biographer Jonathan Keates observes in his 1992 book Handel: The Man and Music that “etherealized visions of the elderly master refusing food, weeping into the semiquavers and having angelic hallucinations are mostly moonshine.”
In the autumn of 1741, Handel accepted the invitation to visit Dublin, arriving there on November 18 with the completed score of Messiah in his traveling bags, but it was not until April 13, 1742, that the oratorio received its premiere. Seven hundred people were able to squeeze into Dublin’s Musick Hall in Fishamble-street to hear the work performed by the choirs of Dublin’s two cathedrals (totaling fewer than 40 men and boys) and the string band (reinforced occasionally by trumpets and timpani—oboe and bassoon parts were written later), all directed from the keyboard by Mr. Handel himself. The work created a sensation: “Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience,” exulted Faulkner’s Journal. “The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.” Handel divided his share of the proceeds (about £400), as did the other performers, among Dublin’s three most important charities.
Messiah is unique among Handel’s works, being his only biblical oratorio using texts from the New Testament, and his only “Christian-contemplative” oratorio. Although the text is not a dramatic narrative but an epic-lyric poem celebrating Christian redemption, Handel’s musical approach in setting Jennens’ libretto was decidedly dramatic. The work’s three parts recall the three acts of Italian operas, and the oratorio is indeed a piece designed by a seasoned operatic professional to “entertain,” in the best sense of the word, listeners in a concert room, not chiefly to instruct or edify a congregation or to be used in any sort of worship.
Handel synthesizes the best elements of the three musical traditions in which he was steeped: the Italian, the German and the English. He makes use of Italian forms of musical expression, borrowing, rearranging and transforming into “duet-choruses” (such as “And he shall purify”) some passages from his own Italian love duets. In the “Pastoral Symphony” (entitled Pifa) that introduces the shepherds, Handel alludes to the music of the pifferari, the country bagpipers who descend the Italian mountains during the Christmas season to play in village streets. Handel employs German musical ideas, particularly in the music describing Jesus’ suffering and death, where the jagged dotted rhythms and forceful harmonies have a particularly German expressive quality. In that great “coronation march,” the “Hallelujah Chorus,” melodic fragments echoing the German chorale “Wachet auf” may be heard in “The kingdom of this world” and in “And he shall reign for ever and ever.” Handel’s melodic shapes, vocal treatment, grand anthem-like choruses, and text-setting display the “English character” that has ensured Messiah’s unchallenged supremacy in the English choral repertoire: in such arias as “He was despised” and “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” the rhythms of the music grow out of the natural speech rhythms of the words, so that the music expresses the text directly and powerfully, and then illustrates it almost visually (e.g., “Every valley shall be exalted,” “The people that walked in darkness,” and “All we, like sheep”).
The easy accessibility and glorious variety of the music that results from the confluence of these elements (and which often conceals the exalted art underlying it) has helped to guarantee Messiah’s survival, through a seeming infinitude of “arrangements,” versions and types of presentation, as one of the most popular pieces ever composed. As R.A. Streatfeild observes, “Messiah, if not Handel’s greatest work, is undoubtedly the most universal in its appeal” because it continues to sing to “high and low, rich and poor, wise and foolish alike” a magnificent song of salvation, fresh, vital and full of aesthetic and spiritual grace.