Getting a Handel on things


The U of C’s choral director talks about the annual campus performance of Messiah.

James Kallembach and I started with the University Chorus at the same time, in the fall of 2005. I had just moved back to Hyde Park to take a job with my alma mater; he had just been hired as the director of choral activities for the Department of Music. Every year since then, he has conducted (and I have sung in) the annual pre-holiday performance of George Frideric Handel's oratorio Messiah. Since after five years I could sing the choral parts with my eyes closed, I decided to see how it was wearing on Kallembach. A slightly edited interview with him is below.

QandA_QDrop.jpgHow many times have you conducted Messiah?

QandA_ADrop.jpgThis is my sixth time conducting it at U of C, and basically my sixth time conducting it in any substantial manner. The funny part of that story is that I avoided it during my graduate-school days because I always had this thought that I would end up in a position where I'd have to conduct it every year anyway, and I didn't want to get bored of it from the start. It turns out I was exactly right.

kallembach-portrait.jpgI've done several of the choruses in church choirs, accompanied several of the arias, and, of course, studied it in detail in school, but I've fulfilled my own prophesy of conducting it every year.

QandA_QDrop.jpgMost performances of Messiah are truncated—not every movement is performed. Why?

QandA_ADrop.jpgThe piece is so well-loved people want to perform it, but the two-and-a-half hour or more running time makes it difficult from a modern audience standpoint and from a soloist and choir standpoint. Plus, many of the movements don't lend themselves to certain times of the year. It probably began as a way for amateur choral societies to be able to perform the piece and ended up being a way to make it seasonal, i.e., Christmas and Easter movements as appropriate. One important note: there are several versions, so there are versions of arias and a chorus or two that hardly ever get performed at all.

What's unique in classical music is the almost insane popularity of this piece. I doubt there has been a year when it has not been performed since its premiere. This is very unusual in classical music (at least in performances prior to 1900 or so), and especially in the oratorio genre.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat’s your favorite movement?

QandA_ADrop.jpgI don't have a favorite movement, but some of my favorite moments are the first tenor aria "Comfort ye"—how unexpected that this massive oratorio would start with such a gentle and beautiful message. The first bars to the first tenor cadenza are my favorite (about the first 16 bars or so). I also love the little pastoral "Pifa" that opens up the angel visitation in Part I, "He shall feed his flock," "All we like sheep," "The trumpet shall sound," and the last few bars of the last movement. In general, I think the last movement is one of the most exciting movements in music history. Also, I apparently like the movements that involve pastoral scenes.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat’s your least favorite movement?

QandA_ADrop.jpg"He was despised" is an incredible aria, but amazingly long in the context of the whole work. I don’t dislike it, but I generally don’t include it for this performance due to its inordinate length.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhile the text of the oratorio is taken entirely from the Bible, it isn’t, strictly speaking, about Christmas. Why do you think Messiah has become a Christmastime staple?

QandA_ADrop.jpgTo be honest, I’m not sure. Handel just struck gold, and I doubt he had any idea of it at the time. On a rather cynical note, he needed a way to raise funds in a tricky London music and drama scene (although the work was premiered in Dublin). He basically created the best fundraiser of all time for things choral in the process. It was a huge success for him, and it continues to be one today.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhy is it a staple, so firmly fixed in the canon?

QandA_ADrop.jpgA weird way to think of it is that things that endure associated with the Christmas season—cold, the solstice, however you want to look at it—have to do with "light amidst the darkness" of the long, long nights of winter. So in climates like ours, I think it's common to want indoor activities to turn inward, so to speak.

From a musical standpoint, I think Jennens' masterful libretto is a huge component in this equation. It deftly puts scriptures together in a way that touches on profound spiritual mysteries. It can touch a broad audience.

Handel had an uncanny talent for setting the mood in music, and for musical wit, and this libretto gives him the room to do so. It's more about general feelings than it is about specific action, as in an opera. We all sit there waiting to hear what the first thing is that will happen in this piece that is supposed to depict the story of one of the world's major religions. Similar to other religious narratives, we wait to hear if some powerful force will come and sweep our problems and our enemies away and sort of feed into our ego, but the first thing that happens are the gentle chords in the strings, and then the tenor, a hero in the opera world, singing so gently the words "Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people." Quite a different message than we were expecting.

Although it would be impossible to look at the libretto and see it as universalist in some way, it doesn't matter: we can see the deeper human messages and narrative behind the symbols and the myths.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat should a first-time attendee at this year’s concert know?

QandA_ADrop.jpgWe have some great guest soloists this year: Kimberly Jones and Wilbur Pauley. Both have connections with the Lyric Opera, and Wilbur just finished up his role of "Snug" in Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Lyric. We also have Matthew Dean, AB'00, and Lon Ellenberger (longtime Rockefeller Chapel soloist) singing solos.

To Kallembach's last answer I might add, "Come early": Rockefeller Memorial Chapel is big, but this concert packs the pews every year. Come see the University Chorus and Motet Choir perform Messiah for yourself, tonight at 8 p.m. at Rockefeller Chapel. Take it from me: the Hallelujah Chorus is worth the price of admission by itself.

Benjamin Recchie, AB'03

December 3, 2010