Handel’s ‘Messiah’ with the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus

The San Francisco Symphony and Chorus © Cory Weaver

One of the joys of the Christmas season is Handel’s Messiah – and the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus present this magnificent work at Davies Symphony Hall this weekend. This performance, conducted by Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin, features the harmony of 100 voices, with soloists Lauren Snouffer (soprano), countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, tenor Ben Bliss and bass Adam Lau.

George Frideric Handel – said by Beethoven to be the “greatest composer that ever lived” – wrote this glorious oratorio in the space of four weeks, over August and September, in 1741, and originally conceived it as an Easter offering. Weary of the emotional and financial burden of producing operas, with their requirement for elaborate scenery and foreign soloists – and to some extent conscious of the changing tastes of audiences – Handel started writing oratorios in the 1730s.

Messiah had its preview at the Musick Hall, Fishamble Street in Dublin, on 13th April, 1742 – before an audience of 700, who flocked to see the oratorio (as well as one of the soloists who was the subject of much gossip at the time). Ladies were asked, in advance, by the management to wear dresses without hoops, in order to make “Room for more company”, and gentlemen were asked not to wear their swords. A great benefactor of orphans, retired musicians and those who suffered ill health, Handel donated a portion of the proceeds of this debut to a debtors’ prison and a hospital in Dublin.

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting in rehearsal on Tuesday evening, June 28, 2016 © Stefan Cohen

Messiah became an Easter tradition, and was revived in London in 1745, in 1749, and again in 1750. By 1777 performances had spread to major cities throughout the United Kingdom, as well as the German cities of Hamburg and Mannheim, and by the 1780s to Boston, New York and Philadelphia. By the 19th century, however, Handel’s oratorio had become firmly entrenched as a Christmas tradition – even more so in the United States than in Britain.

The Grammy Award-winning San Francisco Symphony Chorus (eight awards in all) was established in 1973 at the request of the Symphony’s then Music Director Seiji Ozawa. The Chorus numbers 32 professional artists – who are part of the American Guild of Musical Artists – and more than 120 volunteer performers, and it performs more than 26 concerts each season. One of a few choruses in the world devoted solely to one orchestra, it has a repertoire which ranges from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to A Charlie Brown Christmas – which the Chorus will be performing on 21st to 23rd December. Prior to that – on 19th and 20th December – the Chorus will appear in ’Twas the Night – a Festival of Carols – both at Davies Symphony Hall and with the San Francisco Symphony.

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting in rehearsal on Tuesday evening, June 28, 2016 © Stefan Cohen

The line-up of soloists for Messiah is impressive as well. American soprano Lauren Snouffer has a wide-ranging repertoire, embracing the music of Monteverdi through to contemporary composers such as Missy Mazzoli and George Benjamin. Multi-award-winning countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen – with a “commanding stage presence, gorgeous tone and musical sensitivity” (Houston Chronicle) – is regarded as one of opera’s most promising young stars. He was a member of San Francisco Opera’s 2018-19 Adler Fellowship program. Tenor Ben Bliss, described by the New York Classical Review as “one of the leading Mozartian tenors,” is considered to be among the most versatile performers of his generation, and award-winning bass Adam Lau is appearing in Messiah with the Oratorio Society of New York and Musica Sacra this season as well. He has sung in some of the nation’s leading summer programs including San Francisco’s Merola Summer Festival, Aspen Opera Theater, and Santa Fe Opera.

Ragnar Bohlin leads the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and soloists in Handel’s Messiah at Davies Symphony Hall on 13th and 14th December. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:

Smithsonian Magazine
San Francisco Symphony program notes
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Lauren Snouffer
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
Ben Bliss
Adam Lau

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Mariss Jansons – 1943-2019

With the passing of Latvian conductor, Mariss Jansons, the world of classical music has lost a towering figure. Maestro Jansons passed away at his home in St Petersburg at the age of 76 on 30th November.

Born in Riga – the son of conductor Arvīds Jansons – he studied in St Petersburg, assisting Yevgeny Mravinsky at the Leningrad Philharmonic, before entering the city’s Conservatory where he studied piano and conducting. He worked with Hans Swarowsky in Vienna, and with Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg.

Mariss Jansons held a number of eminent roles over his lifetime – the most recent having been Chief Conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for more than a decade from 2003, together with that of Chief Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam from 2004 to 2015. He was only the sixth conductor to hold this role, and became the Orchestra’s Conductor Emeritus after his departure.

In 1979, Maestro Jansons was appointed Music Director of the Oslo Philharmonic – a position he held until 2000 – and from 1997 to 2004, he was Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Maestro Jansons also made numerous appearances as an international guest conductor. He was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic in 1997, and was a regular guest of ensembles such as the Berlin and Vienna philharmonic orchestras, and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Mariss Jansons was a prolific recording artist, on labels such as Chandos – for whom he recorded the Tchaikovsky symphonies with the Oslo Philharmonic – and focused mainly on the Russian repertoire in his EMI recordings. He also recorded on the Royal Concertgebouw’s own label and released a number of recordings during his time at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Among the numerous honours bestowed on Maestro Jansons were the Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit, memberships of the Royal Academy of Music in London, the Society of Music Friends in Vienna, the Order of the Three Stars (Latvia’s highest honour), the Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art, the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, and honorary membership of the Berlin Philharmonic.

He won a Gramophone Award in 2004 – for the Grieg and Schumann piano concertos with Leif Ove Andsnes and the Berlin Philharmonic – and he was named Conductor of the Year by Opernwelt in 2011 for his performances at Dutch National Opera of Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The following year he and Jan Raes, Managing Director of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, received the IJ-Prize of the City of Amsterdam, and in 2013, Mariss Jansons won the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, became a Knight of the Order of the Netherlands Lion, and was awarded the Grand Merit Cross with Star of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Earlier this year, Maestro Jansons was further honoured with the Herbert von Karajan Prize at the Salzburg Easter Festival, and given the Opus Klassik Lifetime Achievement award.

This truly inspirational conductor will be sadly missed.

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