As the Christmas season approaches, the inspirational sound of Handel’s magnificent oratorio, Messiah, will once again reverberate through concert halls and cathedrals around the world – including Davies Symphony Hall. This coming week, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and the San Francisco Symphony, led by Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin, will follow their Christmas tradition in presenting one of the best loved works in the classical repertoire.
Appearing with the Chorus are soprano Sydney Mancasola, described by Opera News as “bewitchingly full-voiced and vocally agile”, Lauren Segal – the South African-Canadian mezzo soprano rapidly making a name for herself, with her “lustrous voice” (Opera News) and “strong stage presence” (Stage Door) – tenor Brian Stucki – “whose voice soars easily in the high register” (Opera News) and bass Adam Lau, winner of the 2015 George London Award.
Handel wrote the music for Messiah in the extraordinarily short space of three to four weeks, during August and September 1741, originally intending it for performance the following Easter. The scriptural text, by English landowner and patron of the arts, Charles Jennens, was compiled from the King James Bible and the version of the Psalms as included in the Book of Common Prayer. The work is divided into three parts – the first prophesying the birth of Christ, the second glorifying his sacrifice for humankind, and the final part heralding his Resurrection.
Messiah, conducted by the composer, was premiered on April 13, 1742, at Neale’s Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin, and was “rapturously received” (Messiah – The Compleat Guide).
It was initially not as enthusiastically received when it was first performed in London, though, between 1749 and 1759, but after some changes had been made, Messiah was successfully revived at Covent Garden. It became an established favorite in London during the 1750s when Handel – who was known for his generosity to orphans, retired musicians and those who were ill – started to perform the work for charity, as he had done in Dublin, setting in train an annual series of performances in London.
Handel apparently tended to revise his works ahead of each season, depending on the soloists whom he had engaged, and Messiah underwent a number of such revisions, with the result that there is no principal version of the oratorio, and it has not been possible to reconstruct the original performance, as it took place in Dublin, with any certainty. According to former SF Symphony program annotator, the late Michael Steinberg: “Most modern conductors and editors (including Ragnar Bohlin) treat the score with its variants as a sort of kit from which to build an edition of their own”.
It doesn’t seem to be clear at which point performances of Messiah became a Christmas, as opposed to an Easter, tradition. Laurence Cummings, director of the London Handel Orchestra, is quoted as saying: “There is so much fine Easter music – Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, most especially – and so little great sacral music written for Christmas. But the whole first part of Messiah is about the birth of Christ.” By the early part of the 19th century, though, performances of Messiah were becoming more of a Christmas tradition in the United States than they were in Britain.
Grammy Award-winning conductor Ragnar Bohlin has been director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus since 2007, and has prepared choruses for some of the world’s leading conductors – including Michael Tilson Thomas, Herbert Blomstedt, Valery Gergiev, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Alan Gilbert. He has also conducted works for choir and orchestra for the Edmonton, Sao Paulo, Malmö and Stavanger symphonies, and is the founding Artistic Director of the professional chamber choir Cappella SF.
The San Francisco Symphony Chorus was established in 1973, at the request of Seiji Ozawa, at that time Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, and the ensemble has an enviable reputation, having received a total of eight Grammy Awards. Included in these are three for Best Performance of a Choral Work (for Orff ’s Carmina burana, Brahms’s German Requiem, and Mahler’s Symphony No 8), and awards for Best Classical Album – for a collection of the music of Stravinsky, for Mahler’s Symphony No 3 and for his Symphony No 8.
The Chorus has also had its moments of glory in the world of films – having sung on the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning film, Amadeus, been heard in Godfather III, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and on the DVD release of the Emmy Award-winning performance of Sweeney Todd with the San Francisco Symphony.
Ragnar Bohlin leads the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in performances of Handel’s Messiah at Davies Symphony Hall on December 17 to 19. For more information, and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
The Glorious History of Handel’s Messiah by Jonathan Kandell – Smithsonian Magazine
Messiah – The Compleat Guide with references from Messiah: The Complete Work – Ruth Smith, henrickson.com 2009
The late Michael Steinberg – former program annotator for the San Francisco Symphony