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Thursday, December 15, 2005 | Editor’s Note: Voice of San Diego is embarking on a new effort to cover the arts in San Diego and give patrons the opportunity to provide their own reviews of events. Read audience reviews of “Messiah.”

If Billboard’s charts listing the most-consumed music had been around a couple of hundred years ago, Handel’s “Messiah,” first performed in 1741, would rank up there with any Beatles album and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

With its searing anger, tender meditation and joyful outbursts, “Messiah,” well, it just rocks. A gazillion people have heard all or parts of “Messiah.” Even people who don’t normally listen to artful music have heard its “Hallelujah” chorus in churches, commercials and elevators. Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, which presented the first American “Messiah” in 1818, has performed it every year since.

Despite this 250-year history of “Messiah” mania, Martin Wright wants his singers and instrumentalists to play it as if it were the first time. For Wright, this week’s four “Messiah” performances will be his first time conducting the San Diego Chamber Orchestra and the San Diego Master Chorale together. (Wright has been the director of the Master Chorale since 2002 and was chorus master of the San Diego Opera for 13 years.)

Wright is asking the audience to join the ensemble and open up their ears – and hearts – for this familiar work. “I want people to think this is the first time they’ve heard this, the first time they’ve played it, not just rehashing. I want it to be new and something people love giving to each other.”

Achieving that freshness is something else. Wright, while on the telephone, plays on his piano the melody of “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” This aria for soprano is one of “Messiah’s” most delicate moments, deep with mystery and faith, following the thunderous “Hallelujah” chorus.

Wright hears a minuet in its tempo, so he wants the artists to keep it light and lively, and he says that dance informs all of “Messiah.”

“It all has to do with dance, the body moving, thereby creating something that allows the words to come through freshly and meaningfully,” he says.

Wright noticed during rehearsals that a transformation occurred. The orchestra realized they were dragging 20-year-old baggage, and now they can do “Messiah” anew. “To me, it’s all about the message. The soloists are singing it as if it was the first time these words have come out of their mouths. It’s so genuine and heartfelt,” he says.

Dismissing some of the mythology around “Messiah” might help audiences see it anew. They have come to regard “Messiah” as a sacred work. All but one of this weekend’s performances will be in churches.

The truth is that “Messiah” was a thoroughly commercial venture. Despite a string of successes in London theaters, George Frederick Handel was having a serious cash-flow problem, and he leaped at a commission to write a series of works for charity concerts. Handel wrote the first one – “Messiah” – at lightening speed, in just three weeks, and then traveled to Dublin for the premiere in April 1742.

“Messiah” retains a quasi-religious identity, because it is an oratorio, which like all music, has religious roots. It tells the story of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. Charles Jennens, a wealthy amateur librettist, provided the text, from scripture, but he described it as an “entertainment.” (Legend says he might have pirated it.)

Despite the religious association, “Messiah” premiered in a Dublin music hall. None other than Jonathan Swift, then the dean of St. Patrick’s Church in Dublin (and the irreverent author of “Gulliver’s Travels”) deemed “Messiah’s” combination of sacred and secular sacrilegious and tried unsuccessfully to block its performance.

One myth rings true. From the beginning, “Messiah” was a hit. The premiere was a sell-out, and ladies were asked not to wear hoops under their skirts, to make room in the 700-seat theater.

One fan was King George II, who stood during the “Hallelujah” chorus. Legend has it that George stood because he thought he was hearing the voice of God. When the king stands, everybody does, and to this day, audiences stand to recapture that moment. But Wright explains that the king simply needed to stretch his legs. He shrugs off the myth that keeps audiences rising to their feet.

“At that point it’s nice for the audience to stretch their legs,” Wright says.

A cult grew around “Messiah,” and Handel gave audiences what they wanted. The first performance consisted of 26 singers and about 40 instrumentalists. Afterwards, Handel rewrote it regularly to suit the venue and the available singers and instruments. Composers like Mozart also rearranged it, and by the 1830s, “Messiah” performances were like rock concerts. More than 600 musicians and singers might play to audiences in the tens of thousands.

Today, presentations of the three-part “Messiah” vary as much as they did when Handel was massaging it. Sometimes groups perform the full “Messiah,” while others do just the Christmas part with the “Hallelujah” chorus. Early music groups have recreated Handel’s original 1742 score and orchestration, but there is no “authentic” “Messiah.” La Jolla Symphony had a “Messiah” sing-along last Sunday, and this weekend, the San Diego Symphony will perform jazz great Quincy Jones’s “Gospel Messiah.”

The SDCO and Master Chorale will have a complement of 25 musicians, 90 singers and four soloists. Escondido audiences will hear the full-length version lasting about two hours with an intermission; the rest will have the Christmas part and “Hallelujah” chorus, just 70 minutes, with no intermission.

CONCERT INFO

“Messiah,” San Diego Chamber Orchestra and San Diego Master Chorale. All performances except at Escondido begin at 7:30 p.m.; the Escondido performance begins at 2 p.m. Soloists are Tom Corbeil, bass; Sharmay Musacchio, mezzo-soprano; Chad Johnson, tenor; and Frances Young, soprano.

San Diego Symphony presents “Gospel Messiah,” 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 17, at Otay High School and at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 18, at Copley Symphony Hall. Tickets for Otay, $20 and at Copley, $15-$40. Info: (619) 235-0804 or www.sandiegosymphony.com.

Review It Yourself: “Messiah”

Everyone’s a critic. We asked symphony patrons at Thursday’s performance to send us an e-mail with their thoughts. Read audience reviews:

Worth the Ticket Price

In response to the card you handed out last night I have the following comments.

-Henry Otten, Coronado

Disappointing Shortcuts

I certainly enjoyed the performance we attended Thursday night. Everybody was great, and in particular I thought Tom Corbeil, the bass, was outstanding.

I really feel gypped: $43.45 for one hour of music? And with the rather athletic tempo, I kept getting the feeling they were just trying to get it done and get out of there. That really challenged my Christmas cheer.

-David Miller, San Diego

Loved It

Standing Ovation.

-Frank and Jane Duffy, San Diego

molly.bettiga@voiceofsandiego.org

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