Why Handel would have approved of a high-tech, immersive Messiah

Lavish: Messiah’s Elaborate Show – The Live Experience – Craig Fuller

At this time of year, worries about the relevance (or lack thereof) of classical music are for once put aside. We can all relax and, whether at home or in the concert hall, enjoy seasonal favorites such as Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Their relevance is guaranteed – it’s Christmas, for heaven’s sake – so they surely don’t need any special pleading.

Still, that hasn’t stopped a brand-new concert promoter called Classical Everywhere from creating a lavish multimedia show, Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience, in an effort to make the 1741 work more “relevant to younger audiences.” . When premiered earlier this month at the Theater Royal in London’s Drury Lane, Handel’s oratorio was wrapped in an elaborate spectacle involving dancers and a screen that showed images evoking bright suns, looming asteroids and (possibly) a fuzzy fetus.

Between familiar tunes and choruses, two narrators declaimed newly written dramatic dialogue about a son separated from a grieving mother.

The experience was greeted with rapture by some and stony silence by others. Whatever your opinion, there was no escaping the fact that for Classical Everywhere, making Messiah “relevant” seemed to mean emptying the work of its specifically Christian content and replacing it with a vague universal message about oppression leading to the Liberation. And while removing Christianity from the Messiah might seem like an unusual ploy, it was just one example in recent years of performers who have gone to extraordinary lengths to “rescue” classical music from the dreaded “irrelevance” condition. “.

That’s not to say that musicians of the past haven’t updated and “improved” works to make them more palatable to contemporary tastes. The Messiah is a good example. At its first performance in Dublin in 1742, the number of performers was quite modest: around 60 singers and instrumentalists. But within a few decades, Mozart enhanced Handel’s masterpiece with wind and brass instruments, and as early as Handel’s memorial celebrations in 1784, a tradition was born for “monster” performances. It reached its peak in the 1850s at Crystal Palace in south London, where up to 4,000 musicians performed to crowds of 80,000.

Alleluia!  Handel's Messiah has gone through all sorts of versions - Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

Alleluia! Handel’s Messiah has gone through all sorts of versions – Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

Many later musicians, in fact, took a close look at earlier works and adapted them to the tastes of their time. Mahler re-orchestrated Mozart’s operas and Schumann’s symphonies. Twentieth-century conductors made colossal versions of earlier works, like Leopold Stokowski’s lavish orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue for Organ in D Minor. Advances in music technology opened up new avenues for reinventing early music: in 1968, Moog synthesizer virtuoso Wendy Carlos recorded her best-selling album, Switched-On Bach.

But there is a substantial difference between these attempts and contemporary attempts to make classical music more appealing. At the time, no one worried about the “relevance” of classical music, as the continuity of the classical tradition was still intact. You can trace a continuous progression in modes of performance between the original Handel or Bach piece and the latest improved version by Stokowski or Sir Thomas Beecham. Because of this, it never occurred to anyone to doubt that this ancient music could still speak to modern audiences.

From the middle of the 20th century, however, something began to go wrong. For many listeners today, especially younger ones, there is a chasm between the sound and language of classical music and contemporary ways of thinking and feeling. It’s not just the religious content of works like Messiah that suffers from this cultural distancing: the musical language itself seems ancient, completely divorced from popular culture.

The efforts of today’s musicians to make classical works contemporary are of a different nature from what Liszt did to Bach or Beecham to Handel. One way to do this is to fabricate an elaborate context for the staging.

An illustration in The Illustrated London News of the Festival Pavilion performance Messiah in 1864 - DEA / BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/De Agostini Editorial

An illustration in The Illustrated London News of the Festival Pavilion performance Messiah in 1864 – DEA / BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/De Agostini Editorial

Sometimes, as with the multimedia pre-performance shows created by Gerard McBurney for the London Symphony Orchestra and others, the purpose is overtly educational and genuinely useful. Through excerpts from contemporary diaries and letters, grainy old photos and small dramatic scenarios, we uncover the cultural context that contributed to the formation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring or a Beethoven Symphony.

More often than not, the performance itself is made extremely different, usually more theatrical. The Aurora Orchestra, the young upstart among London orchestras, has made a specialty of it. Players often play without music, allowing them to move around. I saw them play in almost total darkness, while bands of lighting under the feet of the musicians transformed in shape and intensity, in tandem with the shapes and rhythms of the music. We see the music as much as we hear it.

Another method is to add light shows or video footage to help the music “speak”. Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (“Winter Journey”), which tells the story of an abandoned lover’s obsessive walk through a snowy landscape, has become a particular favorite for this treatment. Years ago, tenor Ian Bostridge gave a performance in which most of the stage was filled with processions of sad refugees carrying shabby suitcases. Also this month, Allan Clayton’s performance at the Barbican in London was accompanied by projected images of landscape paintings by Australian artist Fred Williams. In both cases, the aim was to take something local and special – a Viennese winter in the 1820s – and make it appealing to a contemporary audience by saying, “This journey is not local, it is universal. .

Another way to achieve this is to eliminate historical or dramatic context and project the music onto a plane of spaced out “immersive” experiences. This term has spread like wildfire: it seems that all other classical concerts now promise immersion. I’ve heard ‘immersive’ string quartets played in total darkness in Donaueschingen, Germany and a ‘immersive’ full orchestra in similar pitch blackness in Huddersfield. The nadir for me was the Philharmonia’s “immersive” soundstage – by donning a VR headset, you could get close enough to the players to see the scuff marks on their shoes.

The danger here is that the music ends up becoming a mere means to an end, a sonic backdrop that – along with the haunting and fantastical images – induces a pleasantly trance-like state. Surely the next step in this process would be to change the music itself, making it more dreamy and less dramatic, to better fit in with the aim of producing an “immersive” state – and you can already hear signs of this , in Max Richter’s hugely popular recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The earthy pungency of the original gives way to a floaty, otherworldly feel engendered by repeating patterns closer to Philip Glass than the Red Priest of Venice.

Gone is the time when Handel’s Messiah receives the same treatment? Probably not, but all things considered, the prospect of an “immersive” Messiah shouldn’t worry us too much. For one thing, the piece is deeply rooted in the culture of music practice by hundreds of amateur choral societies – it’s hard to tolerate someone playing along with something you’ve actually sung. And as in Schubert’s Winterreise, the attempts to couple the piece to contemporary or “universal” themes lack force. For dramatic urgency, nothing beats the original nativity story. The Messiah has survived nearly 300 years of well-meaning tampering. I guess 300 years from now we’ll still be singing the Hallelujah Chorus at Christmas.

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