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American Bach Soloists return with historic Handel oratorio ‘Messiah’

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From page A11 | December 12, 2013 | Leave Comment

That’s the ticket

Who: American Bach Soloists performing Handel’s “Messiah”

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis

Tickets: $25-$54 general, $12.50 students; www.mondaviarts.org, 530-754-2787

Since the Mondavi Center’s opening in October 2002, a December performance of the famous G.F. Handel oratorio “Messiah” has been something of a tradition.

“Messiah” isn’t heard literally every year (in 2012, the Mondavi Center management selected an ABS program featuring slightly less familiar Christmas music by Vivaldi, Corelli and yes, Handel). But “Messiah” is enduringly popular, and returns at 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15, to Jackson Hall.

In contemporary America, “Messiah” is widely regarded as a triumphant Christmas tradition — but it was not always thus. Handel wrote the oratorio at a time when his star as a composer had been on the wane for more than a decade. Handel’s operas (sung in Italian) had lost their appeal in London, and he had begun to suffer financial difficulties, according to ABS music director Jeffrey Thomas.

“By the early 1730s, (Handel’s) professional life was simply unraveling,” Thomas explains. “He was nearly bankrupt and had fallen very much out of the critical favor of the aristocratic public.”

“Messiah” would turn all that around — but it didn’t happen right away, and it didn’t necessarily happen in the month of December. The oratorio’s premiere occurred in April 1742 — shortly after Easter. And the venue was secular — a recently built music hall in Dublin (rather than a sacred space like a cathedral). And while the Dublin premiere was a huge success, the initial performances in London were not landmark events.

” ‘Messiah’ had blurred the distinctions between opera, oratorio, passion and cantata,” Thomas said, “and perhaps some Londoners found this to be a fundamental fault.”

“Messiah” finally clicked with London audiences when it was performed at a charity benefit event in May 1750 at the (still unfinished) chapel at London’s Foundling Hospital — a home for “the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children.”

It is important to consider what sort of city London was at the time.

“The rate of growth of London (during the 1700s) was exponential,” Thomas said. “About three-quarters of Londoners had been born elsewhere. Its culture was as diverse as the most modern 21st-century city. London offered opportunities and wealth to the industrious and ambitious, as well as a thriving underworld, anonymity and meager subsistence to criminals and the unskilled.

“The wealthy typically lived in five-story townhouses, while the lower classes (those not housed as servants in the top floors of the elite’s homes) often lived in terribly unhealthy and cramped hovels. During most of the 1700s, Londoners were subjected to dreadful pollution, reprehensibly unsanitary conditions and mostly unbridled crime,” Thomas continued. “Many of those poor conditions were the result of the preponderance of manufacturing industries within London’s commercial organism.

“About a third of London’s population was employed by manufacturing ventures, and the resulting pollution had turned the Thames River into, literally, a sewer. Still, this flourishing business culture helped increase overseas trade at least threefold over the century, and the spoils were global political power and domestic wealth.

“But the victims of all this were the children. Many lived only a few short years, and still others were abandoned to live on their own in the filth, smoke and mire of London’s poorer quarters.

“In the face of such undeniable misery, the wealthy could hardly turn a blind eye,” Thomas concluded. “Thus, charity became fashionable. Merchants supported charities that in turn supported the working class … to have a ‘bleeding heart’ was especially in vogue among London’s upper-class women.”

In this setting, the benefit performance of “Messiah” in May 1750 became a huge success.

“More than 1,000 people crowded into the space, and more were turned away,” Thomas said. “Massive public attention to the event, coupled with unequivocal approbation for the oratorio, served Handel well and generated new commitment on the part of the London audience to uphold Handel and his oratorios as the great beacons of English music that they are. … In subsequent years, the Foundling Hospital continued to rely upon annual performances of ‘Messiah’ for significant income.”

And indeed, the work continued to grow in popularity, even after Handel’s death in 1759, and the tradition of annual performances of the inspiring oratorio — which gradually migrated into December — continues to this day.

As always, the American Bach Soloists will perform “Messiah” on period instruments, including gut strings, valveless trumpets and the like — similar to the instrumentation that existed in Handel’s day.

Tickets range from $25 to $54 general, and start at $12.50 for students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.

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