THE STORY BEHIND: Handel’s Messiah

On December 14, four world class soloists will join the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Providence Singers to perform the holiday music tradition of Handel’s Messiah

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THE STORY BEHIND: Handel’s Messiah

Title: Messiah, HWV 56

Composer: George Fredric Handel (1685–1759)

When was the last time the Rhode Island Philharmonic played this piece: December 15, 2018

The Story: 

Handel settled permanently in England in 1712. He wanted to make his reputation and fortune there as an opera composer. For many years, he was successful in that endeavor, becoming the director of the Royal Academy of Music, an enterprise sponsored partially by the King for the production of Italian-style opera, Handel’s specialty. Public taste always changes, however, and Handel became the victim of the fickle crowd in 1728, when London went crazy over the first English ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera. Little by little, the Academy’s loyal subscribers lost interest in stilted Italian opera in favor of the more earthy and entertaining ballad operas, which were capturing the city’s theaters.

Handel was not the sort of composer to dabble in such lowbrow pastiches, no matter how financially successful they had become. Steadfast, he clung to his operatic enterprise, which he operated by himself. The company struggled along, producing more failures than successes. Then during Lent in 1732, an event took place that affected the future direction of Handel’s career and permanently changed English musical history. Handel’s Esther was performed. It was the first oratorio ever given in London, and it created a real stir. That May, Handel presented six more performances of Esther, which the public received enthusiastically, in spite of his Italian singers that “made rare work with the English tongue you would have sworn it had been Welch,” according to one review.

ProvSignersHandel still did not give up Italian opera, however, and he continued to write new operas and revive the old ones. Each spring also brought some new (or revised) oratorio including Alexander’s Feast, Saul and Israel in Egypt. By the spring of 1741, it looked as though Handel had worn out his welcome in England. Rumors spread in London that Handel was considering moving back to the Continent. Then in August, he received an invitation to present a concert for the benefit of Dublin’s charities. Using a libretto by Charles Jennens (author of Saul), Handel composed Messiah between August 22 and September 14 — a period of only 24 days! The astonishing thing is that a work written in such haste should be such a consistent, peerless masterpiece. One might even speak of divine inspiration, for Handel once declared, “When I composed the Hallelujah Chorus, I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God Himself.”

The resounding success of Messiah and other Handel works in Dublin during 1741– 42 virtually inaugurated a new career for the composer, though it also had its difficulties. The London premiere of Messiah in 1743 had to be billed simply as “a new sacred oratorio,” since its title might be offensive to the puritanical element. Unfortunately, that was not all. Messiah was a failure at first, and only began to gain some success in 1750 when Handel conducted it for charity. Messiah, however, more than any other oratorio, set the trajectory for Handel’s re-emergence as a composer in England. Of course, it turned out to be the trajectory of a rocket to the stars for Handel’s future position in music and in the hearts of his listeners.

Program Notes by Dr. Michael Fink © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


FROM THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL Review: Tania Miller commands R.I. Philharmonic with Shostakovich

CL4 OR3 Tania Miller2 400 by 252

By Channing Gray
Special to The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE — Bramwell Tovey, the Rhode Island Philharmonic’s new conductor, had to skip Saturday night’s concert at Veterans Memorial Auditorium to undergo cancer treatment. But the orchestra ended up getting the next best thing: Tania Miller, a young Canadian conductor whose recent visits here have proved her to be an exciting musician and a perfect fit for the Philharmonic.

Her take on Shostakovich’s brooding Tenth Symphony, which closed out an evening of lesser-known selections, never failed to keep the big picture in view. The loneliness, the darkness of the vast opening movement, and the searing portrait of Soviet strongman Josef Stalin in the second were an emotional tsunami.

Shostakovich, who faced constant Soviet censorship, had not written a symphony since the end of World War II. But in 1953, just months after the death of Stalin, he sat down to pen the Tenth.

Miller, who stepped in for Tovey on two weeks’ notice, seemed so petite on the podium, but she took hold of the epic score and led the audience on a journey they won’t soon forget.

But the breaking news of the night was the appearance of pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, an audience favorite at the Newport Music Festival years ago. She brought with her Tchaikovsky’s rambling, episodic Second Piano Concerto, which I’ve never heard live.

Tchaikovsky actually wrote three piano concertos, but the last two have been overshadowed by the popular, and overplayed, B-Flat Minor.

There were some tender moments in the lyrical middle movement, where McDermott teamed up with concertmaster Charles Dimmick, and she brought more than a bit of glitter to the concluding section.

But try as they might, McDermott and Miller just couldn’t pull the opening movement together. It’s music in fits and starts, where every few pages the orchestra would stop and McDermott would plow through unimpressive solos cobbled together from scales and a few alternating chords.

Not inventive, imaginative music, in other words. And McDermott was unable to do much to change that with what amounted to a dutiful interpretation.

As for the obligatory encore, she tore into the Prelude from Bach’s Second English Suite, sounding quite frantic at first, but eventually relaxing and making the intricate music sing.

Miller opened the evening with another unfamiliar offering, the African American composer William Grant Still’s “In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy.” The score, chosen as a Veterans Day tribute, is laced with harmonies that sound like spirituals and made a nice change of pace from tired Italian opera overtures.

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