On doing yet another run of mediocre Messiahs

Handel’s Messiah is one of the monuments of Western culture. So why is virtually every performance done by American orchestras so mediocre?

Our industry talks a wonderful line about “world-class” and “excellence.” (No doubt some orchestra mission statements throw in praise of applehood and Mother pie as well). But when it comes to Messiah, the order of the day is invariably maximizing revenue while minimizing costs. This means lots of performances with minimal rehearsal (for a work twice as long as Mahler 8 but no easier), going with the smallest possible complement of musicians (hey, it’s Baroque music, right?), local soloists, and usually the orchestra’s chorus director or assistant conductor on the podium. If a guest conductor is brought in, it’s certainly not a big name with a correspondingly big price tag – and it’s almost never the orchestra’s music director. This is not a recipe for sterling performances.

I should hasten to add that some local soloists are wonderful singers, while orchestra chorus directors are generally very, very good at preparing their choruses. But no orchestra would approach a Mahler symphony with the kind of “good enough for government work” attitude that is invariably applied to Messiah. But the underlying difficulty with Messiah lies in its eternal popularity.

It’s likely that no piece of music from the Baroque period has been so popular for so long. It’s not always remembered that Handel, and not Bach, was the German Baroque composer who was revered during the 75 years or so after their deaths in 1750 and 1759 respectively. It was Messiah that Mozart re-orchestrated; it was Handel who Beethoven described as “the master of us all… the greatest composer that ever lived.” And, as Mozart demonstrated, Messiah was always considered the pinnacle of Handel’s achievement.

In the past fifty years, there’s been a revolution in the performance of Baroque music. But revolutions work best on the unformed and neglected. The French revolution was very, very bad for the ruling class. The historically-informed performance revolution, while providing wonderful clarity and insights into the performance of countless Baroque works, has fatally muddied the Messiah waters. Nowadays one will never hear a Messiah done á la Beecham or Klemperer. But neither will one hear a performance from anything other than a specialist group that’s thoroughly and consistently informed by the latest thinking in HIP practice.

What always seems to happen is a performance that attempts to be Baroque-ish – except for those bits where the conductor doesn’t like how it would sound that way. It’s like hearing a performance of a Mozart violin concerto where the first movement is done senza vibrato and the slow movement is all slides, played by a violinist whose only exposure to HIP is what he’s read in newspapers and record reviews.

The worst misconception that conductors seem to have about HIP as applied to Messiah, and in particular the choruses, is that everything’s supposed to be “dance-like” and that fast is cool. Some of the choruses should indeed move along. But lack of contrast in tempi is every bit as boring as lack of contrast in key or dynamics. The need to bring in a performance under the 150-minute limit before when overtime would be paid is a contributing factor to this problem; I’ve even seen conductors told  by personnel managers at intermission to move things along in the second half (thankfully, not in my current orchestra).

Add to this the inevitable confusion amongst the orchestra about HIP practices about which everyone has some misconceptions – all of them different – and the lack of rehearsal time to sort them out, soloists with their own ideas, and parts that have seen iteration after iteration of markings and bowings, and the end result is a complete mish-mash of ideas and styles.

But much of this could be ameliorated by the application of musical intelligence, or even just reading the score more carefully. It’s no accident that Handel didn’t write “Adagio” over the last two bars of the Hallelujah chorus, as is clear when looking at choruses such as “And the glory of the Lord” and the final Amen. So why do conductors always – always – do the Hallelujah chorus with a massive Adagio at the end? If Handel had wanted that, he would have written it. It’s one thing to add articulations and even dynamics to a piece that Handel wrote in a white-heat of inspiration and a tremendous hurry; it’s another to simply disregard his plain intentions.

And speaking of articulations, why do conductors want trumpet players to play this passage without slurring the two high As? That little run down is so obviously an end-of-phrase transition down to a new phrase; re-articulating the A puts a huge emphasis on what is clearly meant to be the weakest beat in the phrase.

I think that, if conductors would approach Messiah as if they’d never heard the piece, we’d have a lot more success making the piece work. Revelatory performances of even a warhorse like Messiah are still possible; I’ve heard one or two. But they take work and knowledge on the conductor’s part, as well as the willingness of orchestra managements to treat Messiah as other than a cash cow and/or a way to have two orchestras working in the same week.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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