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Inventive Messiah at Meany

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Handel’s Messiah has been a holiday mainstay for years, with dramatic solos and an uplifting Hallelujah chorus familiar to generations of music lovers. But when the UW School of Music and Pacific MusicWorks present the Messiah on December 12-13 in Meany Hall, there will be some surprises along with the familiar.

Stephen Stubbs conducting during a rehearsal of Handel's Messiah

Stephen Stubbs works with the UW Chamber Singers during a rehearsal.  Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

The innovative production will be conducted by Pacific MusicWorks director Stephen Stubbs, senior artist in residence in the School of Music, working closely with Geoffrey Boers, School of Music director of choral activities and conductor of the UW Chamber Singers. Four professional singers will join the Pacific MusicWorks Orchestra and the UW Chamber Singers as soloists for the production.

“Our experimental partnership with Pacific MusicWorks embodies a quite old-fashioned idea,” says Richard Karpen, director of the School of Music. “It’s the idea that student artists thrive and grow more quickly by working in the studios and on stage in world-class productions, singing and playing side-by-side with already accomplished professionals. Stephen Stubbs, a Grammy Award-winning music director, is our ideal partner for this.”

Stephen Stubbs, left, and Geoffrey Boers

"From the very get-go, it’s really been a collaboration,” says Geoffrey Boers (right) of working with Stephen Stubbs on the UW production of Handel's MessiahMedia credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Stubbs has conducted Messiah performances before, but never with the artistic freedom provided by the UW. In the past, working with symphonies as a guest conductor, he would arrive days before a performance with little opportunity for artistic input. At the UW, he has had months to brainstorm with Boers and test ideas with the UW Chamber Singers. “From the very get-go, it’s really been a collaboration,” says Boers. “Stephen and I talked all summer long, deciding what would be best for the choir and the soloists and the piece overall.”

The result is a subtle and complex Messiah, with unexpected pairings of soloist, choir, quartet, and full orchestra that create texture and heighten Handel’s dramatic intent. “There will be many layers of dimensionality,” says Stubbs. “It’s an experiment that’s been running around in my head ever since I’ve been doing Messiah, but it’s the first time I’ve been able to conceptually shape the whole thing. We have the luxury of excellent ingredients—an already high level of musicianship in the UW choir—but also the academic setting that allows for experimentation. I’m extremely excited about the results.”

We have the luxury of excellent ingredients—an already high level of musicianship in the UW choir—but also the academic setting that allows for experimentation.

The most obvious break from recent tradition is the embedding of the soloists in the choir, as was the custom in Handel’s day.  “The normal situation is that you have a choir and you have soloists, and they don’t have much to do with each other,” explains Stubbs. “But in this production the soloists are the first among equals as part of the choir. That was the original intent when the piece was written, but it’s very rare today.”

UW Chamber Singers rehearse Handel's Messiah

The UW Chamber Singers rehearse Handel's Messiah. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

For those who love the familiar Messiah they’ve heard for years, Stubbs and Boers assure that despite some changes, all the drama and majesty are still there. Like the rest of us, Stubbs considers Messiah a masterpiece worthy of immense respect. “One thing that always strikes me is that once you’ve heard certain phrases—I’m talking about the way the music fits the language—the texts become part of our deep language, like something very deep in our DNA,” says Stubbs. “It’s inescapable. Handel has found a way to fit text to music just like hand in glove.”

Boers, who has conducted Messiah for regional choirs for many years, finds that the piece takes on a life of its own each year. He suspects that this year will be no different.

Messiah tends to reflect the zeitgeist of what’s going on, and it has since the time it was written,” he says. “Every movement has its own dialog, with themes of darkness and light, desolation and hope, the dashing into pieces and the rising up. These paradoxes become really personal. I think it’s quite profound, and I think that’s why it has endured all these years.”

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The UW School of Music and Pacific MusicWorks present Handel’s Messiah in Meany Hall on Saturday, December 12 at 8 pm and Sunday, December 13 at 2 pm. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the event page at ArtsUW.org.