One of the glories of the Christmas tradition is Handel’s magnificent oratorio, Messiah, and this year, the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Symphony Chorus (director Ragnar Bohlin) are led by American conductor Patrick Dupré Quigley in what promises to be another inspirational performance at Davies Symphony Hall.
The soloists are soprano Lauren Snouffer, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, tenor Zachary Wilder and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn.
George Frideric Handel wrote his Messiah during August and September in 1741, with an English-language text compiled by landowner and patron of the arts, Charles Jennens, from the King James Bible and the version of the Psalms as included in the Book of Common Prayer. The work was intended for performance the following Easter, and it duly premiered on April 13, 1742, at Neale’s Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin, with the composer conducting. According to Messiah – The Complete Guide – it was “rapturously received”.
It did not, however, get such an enthusiastic reception when it was first performed in London, between 1749 and 1759, but after some changes had been made, Messiah was successfully revived at Covent Garden. It became an established favorite during the 1750s when Handel – who was known for his generosity to orphans, retired musicians and those in ill health – started to perform the work for charity, as he had done in Dublin, leading to an annual series of performances in London.
The work is divided into three parts – the first prophesying the birth of Christ, the second glorifying his sacrifice for humankind, and the final part heralding his Resurrection – and although it doesn’t seem to be clear at which point performances of Messiah became a Christmas, as opposed to an Easter, tradition, the work now firmly takes its place as a central part of the Christmas season in the United States, in Britain and across Europe.
A point of interest raised by Laurence Cummings, director of the London Handel Orchestra, is that the work differs from most of Handel’s other oratorios – in which the soloists dominate, with the choir singing only brief choruses. In Messiah, he says, “the chorus propels the work forward with great emotional impact and uplifting messages”.
GRAMMY®-nominated conductor, Patrick Dupré Quigley, is the Founder and Artistic Director of Seraphic Fire and the Firebird Chamber Orchestra. His work with the music of contemporary American composers has been highly acclaimed, as are his interpretations of both the classical and baroque era repertoires. Gramophone has written of his “Extraordinary … mellifluous and crystalline artistry”, and the Chicago Sun Times refers to him as “Brilliant and inspirational”. In a review of his performance of Messiah with the Firebird Chamber Orchestra, the Miami Herald wrote that his “lithe, buoyant leadership radiated the joy and life-affirming force in every bar of Handel’s music”.
Grammy award winning conductor Ragnar Bohlin has prepared choruses for some of the world’s leading conductors – including Michael Tilson Thomas, Herbert Blomstedt, Valery Gergiev, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Alan Gilbert. He has been director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus since 2007, and during his tenure – in addition to Messiah – has led the Symphony and Chorus in works such as Bach’s B-minor Mass and Christmas Oratorio and Orff’s Carmina Burana. In 2010 the combined ensemble received three GRAMMY® Awards for their recording of Mahler’s Symphony No 8, including one for Best Choral Performance under Bohlin’s direction. Previous GRAMMY® wins for the Chorus include Best Choral Performance for Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem in 1995; Best Choral Performance for Orff’s Carmina Burana in 1992; Best Classical Album with the San Francisco Symphony for Mahler’s Symphony No 3 and Kindertotenlieder in 2004; and Best Classical Album for their performance of Perséphone as part of a collection of Stravinsky’s music in 2000.
Patrick Dupré Quigley leads the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in performances of Handel’s Messiah at Davies Symphony Hall from December 15 to 17. For more information, and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website .
The Glorious History of Handel’s Messiah by Jonathan Kandell – Smithsonian Magazine