Saturday, December 16, 2023 • 2:30 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church (3200 3rd Ave W, Seattle)
Sunday, December 17, 2023 • 2:30 p.m. [SOLD OUT]
Bastyr Chapel (14500 Juanita Drive NE, Kenmore)
Harmonia Orchestra & Chorus
William White, conductor
Jocelyn Claire Thomas, soprano
Soon Cho, mezzo-soprano
Namarea Randolph-Yosea, tenor
Zachary Lenox, baritone
George Frideric Handel (1685 –1759)
Messiah, HWV 56
- full program (PDF)
About the Concert
From the grandest of choruses to the most intimate of arias, Harmonia’s Messiah is a must-see event for the holiday season.
Welcome to Harmonia’s annual performances of Messiah! Believe it or not, this Seattle tradition goes back nearly 50 years. But the unbroken tradition of mounting this particular Handel oratorio extends all the way back to 1750, making it the oldest work of Western art music never to have fallen out of the repertoire. In fact, it’s really the foundational work: the first piece of classical music.
I’ve been considering what it is about Messiah that has made it so durable lo these 274 years. The appeal of the music is obvious, but Handel wrote lots of appealing music, most of which nobody listened to during the first 250 years following his death, and very little of which is presented with any regularity even today.
Pacing has a lot to do with it, and I’ll offer a lesson by way of contrast: I recently attended a performance of a Handel opera, Alcina, and was struck by its unrelenting nature. Alcina, as with many Handel operas, consists of a parade of solo arias that, while individually beautiful, tend to bog down the evening in a certain monochromatism. Messiah does not suffer this problem: the arias, choruses and instrumental interludes are perfectly balanced and paced to magnificent effect so that the listener’s attention is held rapt during the three-and-a-half hours it takes to perform.
Then there’s Messiah’s libretto, which, the more I think about it, seems to have played nearly as important a role in the work’s centuries-long success. As you may know, Messiah recounts the three main episodes of Jesus’ story as depicted in the bible (his birth, his passion and death, and his resurrection), but if you look closely, you’ll notice that this story is told obliquely, not directly.
The text of Part I — the section dealing with the Christmas story — consists almost entirely of Old Testament prophecy foretelling the coming of a savior. There are brief selections from the gospel of Luke, but these are just quotations from the Old Testament. The same is true of nearly all of Part II (with the exception of the “Hallelujah” chorus, which comes from Revelation). Part III delves into the New Testament, but mainly quotes the epistles, not the gospels. In fact, the name “Jesus” is mentioned only once in the entire text of Messiah, and that comes in the brief “but thanks be to God” chorus near the end.
This was a very clever gambit on the part of Charles Jennens: For Christians well-versed in scripture, these passages present a well-known story in a new way, adding depth to the familiar. Meanwhile, non-believers are greeted by a text full of universal human emotions, while not being confronted with a gospel narrative that they find irrelevant.
That’s all to say, Messiah is truly a piece for everyone, a delight from start to finish, whether you are hearing it for the first time this afternoon, or the fiftieth!
— Will White
About the Soloists
Acclaimed by The Source for her “staggeringly brilliant” and “ethereal” voice, soprano Jocelyn Claire Thomas has engaged audiences with her haunting sound, musical intelligence and unusual versatility. Recent highlights
include Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 with Salem Philharmonia, Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro with Tacoma Opera, Amore in Orpheus and Eurydice with Inland Northwest Opera, Nedda in Pagliacci with Opera Bend, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with Portland’s Bach Cantata Choir, Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate with Central Oregon Symphony, Marzelline in Fidelio with Astoria Music Festival, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Handel’s Messiah with Bravo Northwest. She has also performed with Eugene Opera, Inland Northwest Opera, Brava Opera Theatre, Opera Theater Oregon, Portland Concert Opera, Bremerton Symphony, Beaverton Symphony, 45th Parallel, Cascadia Chamber Opera, Central Oregon Mastersingers and Portland SummerFest. Originally from Missouri, Ms. Thomas holds a B.M. from Oberlin and an M.M. and a Graduate Performance Diploma from Peabody. Currently based in Portland, she maintains a private studio in voice, piano and flute, and serves as artistic director for Ping & Woof Opera.
- Learn more: jocelynclairethomas.com
Praised by Opera News for her “potent presence” and as “regal in bearing, with vocal endowments to match” by The Cincinnati Post, lyric mezzo-soprano Soon Cho has gained recognition for her sensitive artistry and
winning execution on the recital, concert and opera stages, and has performed across the United States and in Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, France, Great Britain, Italy, New Zealand and South Korea. She has been featured as a soloist in works by Bach (St. John Passion with the Vocal Arts Ensemble), Mozart (Requiem at the Forbidden City Concert Hall in China), Beethoven (Choral Fantasy with the Cincinnati Symphony and May Festival Chorus), Dvořák (Stabat Mater with the Honolulu Symphony) and Mahler (Kindertotenlieder with the Breckenridge Music Festival). On the operatic stage, she has sung leading roles in Ariadne auf Naxos, Così fan tutte, Dido and Aeneas, Norma, Gianni Schicchi, Hansel and Gretel, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges and Dialogues of the Carmelites. An associate professor of voice at Pacific Lutheran University, Dr. Cho received a D.M.A. and Artist Diploma from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, an M.M. from the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, and a B.A./B.M. from the University of Washington.
- Learn more: plu.edu
South Sudanese–American tenor Namarea Randolph-Yosea completed his Bachelor of Music at Western Washington University in 2019 and in 2022 earned a Master of Music in Vocal Performance at the University of Houston under the tutelage of Melanie Sonnenberg. On the concert stage, he was recently featured as soloist in Bach’s BWV 141 with the Mercury Chamber Orchestra, and in Adolphus Hailstork’s cantata I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes with Choral Arts Northwest. He has sung the Mozart Requiem with the WWU Symphony and Margaret Bonds’ The Ballad of the Brown King with Seattle Choral Company, as well as Bach’s Magnificat and the Evangelist in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with Kirkland Choral Society. On the operatic stage, Mr. Randolph-Yosea recently sang Ernesto in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale with Union Avenue Opera, in which he wowed audiences with his “velvet smooth and sweet, sweet, sweet” instrument (Broadway World). He was selected for the 2023 Gerdine Young Artist program at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, singing the role of Cephus in Treemonisha, participated in the inaugural OTSL New Works Collective, performing the role of X in Madison Lodge, and was selected as an apprentice artist at Des Moines Metro Opera for its 50th anniversary season.
Praised for “a broad, resonant baritone that is exquisitely controlled throughout his entire range,” Zachary Lenox has performed across North America, including the roles of Silvio (Pagliacci), Marcello (La Bohème), Marullo (Rigoletto), Count Almaviva (Le nozze di Figaro), Guglielmo and Don Alfonso (Così fan tutte), Papageno (Die Zauberflöte), Father (Hansel and Gretel), Sid (Albert Herring), Gianni Schicchi and Betto (Gianni Schicchi), and Dick Deadeye (H.M.S. Pinafore). He has appeared with Portland Opera, Opera Parallèle, Pacific Music Works, Cascadia Chamber Opera, Portland Summerfest, Portland Chamber Orchestra, Portland Concert Opera, Eugene Concert Choir, Bravo Northwest and the Astoria Music Festival. Concert appearances include Handel’s Messiah, Samson and Judas Maccabeus, Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass, Schubert’s Mass in G, the Mozart, Verdi and Fauré Requiems, Orff’s Carmina Burana and many works of J.S. Bach, including both the role of Jesus and the baritone arias (the latter on short notice) in the St. Matthew Passion with Harmonia. His engagements this season include Beethoven’s Ninth with the Oregon Symphony, the world premiere of William C. White’s Cassandra with Harmonia, and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius with Festival Chorale Oregon.
- Learn more: zacharylenox.com
George Frideric Handel
Messiah, HWV 56
Handel was born in Halle, Germany, on February 23, 1685, and died in London on April 14, 1759. He composed Messiah between August 22 and September 14 of 1741. The oratorio was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742, under the direction of the composer. In addition to a quartet of vocal soloists and choir, the work calls for 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord and strings.
Handel, renowned in his day as an organist and as a highly prolific writer of Italian operas and English oratorios, was born in Germany in 1685 about a month before J.S. Bach. He received his musical training in Italy, and later became 18th-century England’s “national composer.” Between February and November 1741, Handel — suffering at the age of 56 from various ailments, both financial and physical — withdrew increasingly from public life. At some point that year, the composer received from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the governors of Dublin’s three major charitable institutions an invitation to travel to that city to aid the charities through the performance of his music. Handel was well known in Dublin as a church-music composer, and his works were often played there to benefit charities. It may thus have been this invitation that provided the incentive for Handel to compose “a new sacred Oratorio.” In July of 1741, Charles Jennens, who was responsible for the texts of Handel’s oratorios Israel in Egypt and Saul, gave the struggling Handel the libretto of Messiah, a compilation of biblical texts from both the Old and New Testaments.
On August 22, Handel began to set Jennens’ text to music. He finished the first part of his new oratorio (which deals with the prophecy of Christ’s coming and his nativity) in six days, the second part (which describes Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, the spread of his gospel, the resistance of the heathen, and the vision of the ultimate triumph of the gospel in the establishment of God’s kingdom) in nine days, and the third part (which celebrates the gift of resurrection and eternal life offered to all through Christ’s victory over death) in six more days, with two or three additional days for completing the orchestration. Regarding Handel’s state of mind during Messiah’s composition, biographer Jonathan Keates observes in his 1992 book Handel: The Man and Music that “etherealized visions of the elderly master refusing food, weeping into the semiquavers and having angelic hallucinations are mostly moonshine.”
In the autumn of 1741, Handel accepted the invitation to visit Dublin, arriving there on November 18 with the completed score of Messiah in his traveling bags, but it was not until April 13, 1742, that the oratorio received its premiere. Seven hundred people were able to squeeze into Dublin’s Musick Hall in Fishamble-street to hear the work performed by the choirs of Dublin’s two cathedrals (totaling fewer than 40 men and boys) and the string band (reinforced occasionally by trumpets and timpani — oboe and bassoon parts were written later), all directed from the keyboard by Mr. Handel himself. The work created a sensation: “Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience,” exulted Faulkner’s Journal. “The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.” Handel divided his share of the proceeds (about £400), as did the other performers, among Dublin’s three most important charities.
Messiah is unique among Handel’s works, being his only biblical oratorio using texts from the New Testament, and his only “Christian-contemplative” oratorio. Although the text is not a dramatic narrative but an epic-lyric poem celebrating Christian redemption, Handel’s musical approach in setting Jennens’ libretto was decidedly dramatic. The work’s three parts recall the three acts of Italian operas, and the oratorio is indeed a piece designed by a seasoned operatic professional to “entertain,” in the best sense of the word, listeners in a concert room, not chiefly to instruct or edify a congregation or to be used in any sort of worship.
Handel synthesizes the best elements of the three musical traditions in which he was steeped: the Italian, the German and the English. He makes use of Italian forms of musical expression, borrowing, rearranging and transforming into “duet-choruses” (such as “And he shall purify”) some passages from his own Italian love duets. In the “Pastoral Symphony” (entitled Pifa) that introduces the shepherds, Handel alludes to the music of the pifferari, the country bagpipers who descend the Italian mountains during the Christmas season to play in village streets. Handel employs German musical ideas, particularly in the music describing Jesus’ suffering and death, where the jagged dotted rhythms and forceful harmonies have a particularly German expressive quality. In that great “coronation march,” the “Hallelujah Chorus,” melodic fragments echoing the German chorale “Wachet auf” may be heard in “The kingdom of this world” and in “And he shall reign for ever and ever.” Handel’s melodic shapes, vocal treatment, grand anthem-like choruses, and text-setting display the “English character” that has ensured Messiah’s unchallenged supremacy in the English choral repertoire: in such arias as “He was despised” and “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” the rhythms of the music grow out of the natural speech rhythms of the words, so that the music expresses the text directly and powerfully, and then illustrates it almost visually (e.g., “Every valley shall be exalted,” “The people that walked in darkness,” and “All we, like sheep”).
The easy accessibility and glorious variety of the music that results from the confluence of these elements (and which often conceals the exalted art underlying it) has helped to guarantee Messiah’s survival, through a seeming infinitude of “arrangements,” versions and types of presentation, as one of the most popular pieces ever composed. As R.A. Streatfeild observes, “Messiah, if not Handel’s greatest work, is undoubtedly the most universal in its appeal” because it continues to sing to “high and low, rich and poor, wise and foolish alike” a magnificent song of salvation, fresh, vital and full of aesthetic and spiritual grace.
— Lorelette Knowles
Harmonia and Messiah
The Seattle Chamber Singers first presented (the Christmas portion of) Messiah in December 1970, on a holiday program that included the world premiere of a cantata by the group’s founder, George Shangrow. In those early years George led annual sing-along Messiahs at University Unitarian Church, a tradition that began in 1969. And in 1975 he played harpsichord (“superbly,” according to The Seattle Times) in a Seattle Symphony performance of the work.
The following year George (described as a “young man of much hair” by a Times reviewer) conducted the first complete SCS Messiah, billed as “almost a duplicate of the first performance of Messiah as Handel first heard the work” and the Seattle premiere of this “Dublin version” of the score. KUOW-FM broadcast the concert live from Meany Hall and the Times critic praised the “crisp, clean, good sound, a chorus together in joyous harmony.”
The group presented Messiah almost every season that followed — except for 1983, 1985 (the Bach Year), 1993 and 1996 — until George’s death in 2010. The ensemble performed it that year in tribute to its founder, but took a break for the next two seasons, returning to the work during Clinton Smith’s first year as music director. Will White has continued this tradition.
One decision the conductor of any Baroque oratorio must make is which keyboard instrument(s) to use for the continuo section of the orchestra: organ, harpsichord, both? The earliest SCS performances generally featured a single harpsichord, invariably played by composer and keyboardist Robert Kechley, a founding member of the group. In 1984 he was joined by a second harpsichordist, but then continued solo until 1990, when George began playing and conducting from a second harpsichord, much as Handel himself would have done.
In 1998, the organization (with support from the PACCAR Foundation, King County Arts Commission, Visio Corporation and other generous donors) commissioned Michael Reiter of Tacoma to build a pair of instruments for use in Messiah and other Baroque works. Starting from kits made by Hubbard Harpsichords of Massachusetts, he created two instruments modeled on the French double-keyboard harpsichords of the 18th century. One contains three choirs of strings, while another has four sets of jacks instead of three. The first made its debut at our 1999 Messiah, and was joined by its companion the following year.
George and Bob played these harpsichords for Messiah thereafter until George’s death, when this practice subsided. Our orchestra continued to employ one of the instruments for Baroque works, while the other has resided at Benaroya Hall in recent years, used by the Seattle Symphony and distinguished guest artists for many of their Baroque performances (along with some 20th- and 21st-century works requiring harpsichord).
In 2019, Seattle-based harpsichord builder David Calhoun overhauled both instruments to his exacting specifications and we welcomed Bob Kechley back to the keyboard for our Messiah concerts, sitting opposite Will White at the second harpsichord. These days, Will is joined by Sheila Bristow at the harpsichords, with additional support from a portative organ and a theorbo. (Harmonia is grateful to Paul Tegels for stepping in on very short notice to play the second harpsichord part at these performances.)