Inside the Houston Symphony

Taking you behind the music–one concert at a time!

A conversation between 15 conductors and Händel

with 4 comments

Our next blog entry comes from Catherine Howard, who teaches English at the University of Houston-Downtown.  She was a section leader in the Houston Symphony Chorus for four years.

People think I’m crazy to want to sing a piece over and over.  I’ve been in the Houston Symphony Chorus for 18 years, and this year I’ll perform the Messiah for the 71st time.  (And there are many people in the chorus way ahead of me on that number!)  Why on earth would a person DO that to herself?  It helps that the Messiah is such a complex and varied composition.  I find that I learn—really learn—a piece when given the opportunity to perform it three or four times in a concert series as we do with the Symphony, rather than just a single time. However, I can think of very few pieces that I’d want to sing more than 50 times.  Of course Händel has so many musical ideas—for instance repeated motifs, dotted rhythms to represent flagellation or to set the mood for royalty, gorgeous dramatic representations in the solos, and so on.  It’s difficult to get bored, even in the third or fourth concert in the series.  Even so, 18 years is a lot of years to work on this piece.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that one of the things I enjoy most is getting to know the different conductors and watching them interact with Händel . . .

Catherine's marked-up score

It’s always exciting when a new conductor comes.  Will it be baroque, transparent, light this year?  Or more Romantic, heavy, thoughtful?  Will we get to do “But Thanks”?  What kind of funny stories will we hear?  And what about all those wacky sit-and-stand cues that are different every time?  As the element of surprise quickly fades, old voices from my score take over and begin to interact with the newcomer.  When I started with HSC, I owned a score at home, but the chorus librarian would never let me buy the one I checked out to use every year—the one with all the interesting marks I was beginning to acquire.  So one year I just “took it hostage.”  Later that summer, Tropical Storm Allison flooded the lower levels of Jones Hall, and all Messiah scores were destroyed;  therefore, I have one of the only extant copies of our conductors’ notes going back in the years before that.  You wouldn’t believe how many permutations of rhythms are possible on the first page of “Behold the Lamb of God.”  Tempos can vary widely, too—looking back through my score, I found one fugue with metronome markings of quarter = 162 and quarter = 88 for different years.  But most conductors address more than just the mechanics of the piece.

They discuss technique (“bubbly, effervescent runs”; Nicholas McGegan:  “It’s quite easy in this piece to sound like pirates. ‘Loight’ instead of ‘light.’  And then we’d have to issue parrots . . . “;  Robert King:  “Your words are your bowing arm”), history (both influences/homages, as for example to Palestrina or Monteverdi, and foreshadowing—Will Lacey:  “a minor 9th!  That Schoenberg moment!”), analysis (Bernard Labadie:  “It’s in Ab major—as far as you can get from D major, the 18th-century key of light”;  Lacey:  “Here Händel associates the tri-tone, the ‘devil’s interval,’ with original sin . . .”), mood and tone (Jane Glover:  “That word!  So bleak . . .”;  Jean-Marie Zeitouni:  “bell tones of aggressive-passive contained anger”;  McGegan:  “Think ‘intimate’!”), and even philosophy (Christopher Warren-Green:  “separate ‘god . . . that . . .he.’  Then it is really rhetorical, which is what the baroque is all about”;  Zeitouni:  “Basses, if you are too energetic, it can sound like Santa”).

Who could forget McGegan quoting Pope’s “Essay on Man” in practically the same breath that he warned, “Don’t sing like Margaret Dumont in the old Marx Brothers movies”?  Or Christopher Seaman making us whistle the entire “His Yoke Is Easy”?  Or Glover pointing out Händel’s musical jokes?  Or Zeitouni making Sigmund the Sea Monster motions with his hands during “And the Glory of the Lord”?  Or King telling us to roll the r’s “like a whole choir of cats purring”?  Or Grant Llewellyn deciding at the intermission of the Sunday afternoon performance that we should be arranged in quartets for the evening performance two hours later (which nearly gave the chorus manager a heart attack, as she scrambled to rearrange the seating chart during our “in-between” party)?  Or Lacey imploring us to “Believe in something!” in the long pause between the final two “Amen”s?  Or Harry Bicket frozen in an elegant Christmas ornament pose, left hand up high at the end of a movement—for a full 3 1/2 minutes while a stagehand came out to remove a soprano who’d fainted?

No matter what, I try to keep in mind McGegan’s admonition that “There’s always going to be somebody who’s hearing this piece for the first time.”  The best conductors bring something new to the piece for me.  All of them make me think about what it means, musically.  Händel’s famous reply to the compliment applies here:  “Sire, I have endeavoured not to entertain you—but to make you better.”

So why am I doing this yet again this year?  It doesn’t matter whether I like the conductor or not.  No matter whether my excitement fades because of a ponderous interpretation or I’m uplifted by a sparkling “take,” my score gives me a conversation among fifteen conductors and Händel himself:  a debate and exchange and enactment of what the Messiah means—not just how to get the textual message across musically, but the true musical meaning of the piece.  Perhaps most important of all, though, is that more than for anything else we sing, the Messiah every year is a reminder that a composition is a living, changing thing.  THAT’s why I do this to myself.

—Catherine Howard, Alto II


Written by Houston Symphony

December 15, 2010 at 12:00 pm

4 Responses

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  1. A wonderful article!

    Elizabeth Orlik

    December 15, 2010 at 4:36 pm

  2. I couldn’t have explained any better why I sing “Messiah” year after year. And I’m not far behind Catherine in number of performances!

    Claude Bitner

    December 15, 2010 at 6:12 pm

  3. Thank you, Catherine, for this wonderful essay! I sang the Messiah with the Symphony Chorus for many years and, like Catherine, I never tired of it. This year I’ll enjoy the performance from the audience. But reading this essay prompted me to get out my score and scan through some of my favorite conductors’ notes. Some notes in my score that she didn’t mention include in “All We Like Sheep” at “everyone to his own way” to “sound more ‘NFL’ here.” About “He Trusted in God,” Glover said we should be “aggressively foul throughout and to keep up the malice.” I noted McGegan’s warning of the “standard Messiah problem — your interest in the words runs out before the music does.” About the Pifa, McGegan also said that this was “time out for a television correspondent to say: Meanwhile, in a hill outside Bethlehem, there were shepherds….” I don’t remember for sure — was it King? — who thinks of “His Yoke is Easy” as the breakfast chorus: “his yolk is over-easy and his bagel toasted light.” Some conductor warned us to start out small with “For Unto Us” and to not wake the baby too soon. About that chorus, James Paul said “Forget the pain of childbirth and remember the joy of conception.” McGegan said “Hallelujah” is basically Hebrew for “yippee.”

    Carolee W.

    December 15, 2010 at 8:04 pm

  4. I enjoyed every word of your trip down memory lane. I plan to see you make your annual pilgrimage through the Messiah from the audience this year and will enjoy it even more having read your delightfully insightful commentary. I believe you are everything (and more) Handel had in mind when he wrote the Alto score … a lifelong student of his masterpiece!

    Susan Casper

    December 18, 2010 at 6:16 pm

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