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‘Handeled’ in a different way: ‘Messiah’ to take Baroque approach on Saturday

By Staff | Nov 15, 2019

Masterworks Chorale is presenting Handel's "Messiah" in the Frank Center on Saturday night. Courtesy photo

SHEPHERDSTOWN — For many people, Georg Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” inspires feelings of holiday cheer and memories of Christmas-time church services, since many of the piece’s movements are sung by choirs across the country during the holiday season.

Six years have passed since “Messiah” was last performed by Shepherd University’s Masterworks Chorale. This Saturday at 7:30 p.m., the Masterworks Chorale will be bringing it back to the Frank Arts Center Theater.

“In English-speaking countries, we sort of treat ‘Messiah’ as the holiday piece,” said Director Rachel Carlson. “It’s thrilling, really, to conduct a piece that I know so well.”

Carlson, who sings with the Oregon Bach Festival in the summer and has previously sung with the Washington Bach Consort, said her training as a Baroque vocalist has prepared her well for interpreting the piece the way it would have been performed in Handel’s time.

Carlson has also sung the oratorio with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center for many years.

“I’ve sung it there, I think eight years with eight different conductors from all over the world, each with their own unique interpretation. Some of them added their own unique touches. Some of them conducted from the continuo, which was interesting,” Carlson said, referring to the keyboard instrument from Handel’s day. “They all took a Baroque approach to the piece.”

When Carlson started thinking last spring about conducting “Messiah” for the first time, she knew she wanted it to be performed with the Baroque performance practices she had learned as a vocalist. But with so many people having sung “Messiah” with modern choral performance practices, she knew her vision would be challenging for many of her choir’s members.

“Singing a piece people know so well and have sung so many times, they have to relearn it,” Carlson said. “I think we as a choir are less familiar with a Baroque style, so that’s a hurdle and it takes a while to learn.”

According to Carlson, most choirs outside of the professional arena perform “Messiah” as it was taught to their directors, with a performance practice more in line with those from the Romantic music era.

“It has a louder, fuller sound than what musicologists think would have been used during Handel’s time,” Carlson said of the Romantic performance practice. “I think that Baroque performance practice came along in the mid-to-late 20th century, because of research being doing by musicologists. Even then, we’re not entirely sure what it sounded like.

“There was a real revolution in the midst of the 20th century that led to a lot of changes in performance practice, but in the mid-20th century, I think church choir directors didn’t know how it was done. Many of them conduct it the way they grew up singing it,” Carlson said. “I think generally Baroque interpretations tend to be a with professional groups and international conductors.”

Carlson said she is excited for the community to come to the performance and hear how the oratorio might have sounded to its first audience in the Great Music Hall in Dublin, Ireland on April 13, 1742.

Admission and seating is on a first come-first serve basis and advance sales or reservations are not available. The box office will open at 6:30 p.m. General admission is $15, $10 for Shepherd faculty, staff and alumni; senior citizens; and students 18-and-under and free for Shepherd students with Rambler ID. For more information, call 304-876-5555 or visit www.shepherd.edu/music.