Can you ‘Handel’ this?

Dayton Performing Arts Alliance presents Handel’s ‘Messiah’

By Gary Spencer

Photo: The DPAA presents Handel’s “Messiah” Sunday, Dec. 20; photo: Andy Snow

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, as Frank Sinatra once sang, and there are so many traditions during this time—decorating trees, hanging stockings, leaving stale cookies and spoiled milk for Santa Claus—and some other ones that are more grounded in the origins of Christmas in particular. One of those traditions is worldwide performances of one of the most famous pieces of classical music ever written. This tradition annually occurs here in the Gem City, and that piece of music is the grand oratorio “Messiah” by German composer George Frideric Handel.

This year’s performance of Handel’s “Messiah” is being produced by the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, an organization formed just three years ago through the merging of the Dayton Philharmonic, Dayton Ballet and Dayton Opera Guild, with all organizations being unified under one goal.

“Our mission is to bring locally produced, high quality performances and education programs of dance, opera and instrumental music to the community,” says DPAA President and CEO Paul Helfrich.

Putting on a locally produced, high quality performance of Handel’s “Messiah” most certainly meant the DPAA would enlist a 35-piece edition of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, the roughly 50 members of the Dayton Philharmonic Chamber Choir, a handful of soloists and 21-years strong DPO conductor Neal Gittleman to bring to life the dots Handel wrote on paper. In fact, it is Gittleman who made the Christmastime performance of “Messiah” a yearly thing here in our city.

“This will be our 13th year of doing ‘Messiah’ in December,” Gittleman explains. “It was my idea in the first place, and except for once in a blue moon, I conduct it every year and would miss it very much if I wasn’t doing it!”

For those who don’t know the history of the piece, Handel had been writing Italian operas while living in England during the 18th century. As taste in music was in flux at the time, Handel decided to compose an English language oratorio based on scriptures from the King James Bible produced with orchestra, choir and solo vocalists. Similar to an opera, “Messiah” has arias and tells a story, but differs in that it is strictly a concert piece as opposed to an opera, which basically is a form of musical theatre.

“‘Messiah’ tells the story of Jesus Christ: prophecy, birth, passion, resurrection,” Helfrich explains. “A major part of it is the traditional Christmas Nativity story, so it fits perfectly with the Christmas season.  The texts come from Isaiah and from the Book of Revelation. However, there are no characters—no singer plays the part of Jesus, or Mary, John the Baptist or anything like that. Rather, it relies on the power of its text, taken almost entirely from the Bible and powerful music.”

Handel’s “Messiah” proves itself as tradition, performed every holiday season in nearly every corner of the world for more than 200 years now.

“The appeal of ‘Messiah’ goes well beyond the Christian faith,” Helfrich continues. “It’s one of the greatest works of concert music ever written, with a regular performance history going back to its first performance in 1742.  It contains one of the most iconic pieces of music ever, the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, as well as several other familiar numbers like ‘For Unto Us a Child is Born’ and ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound.’ And it’s part of a tradition of choral singing that also goes back hundreds of years, by choirs professional and amateur, church and community, student and adult.”

“It’s quite simply one of the greatest pieces of all time,” Gittleman continues. “Great music, a compelling story and, above all, great drama. Handel sought out the dramatic possibilities in biblical texts and went with it. Even though ‘Messiah’ is essentially an encapsulation of Christian theology, it’s still powerful drama that grips people now as much as ever.”

This year’s edition of “Messiah” will take place like it has for the past 10 years in the hallowed halls of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Dayton, a venue perfect for orchestral music, choirs and sacred texts, for gathering during the holiest time of the calendar year.

“Westminster is a beautiful church and the resonant acoustics are particularly favorable for this type of piece, with the choral singing and 18th-century-sized orchestra,” Helfrich explains. “With a piece like this, it speaks for itself—you don’t really need to change it up from year to year, and the familiarity, I think, is what keeps people coming back. The holiday season is a time for traditions.”

The Dayton Performing Arts Alliance presents Handel’s “Messiah” Sunday, Dec. 20 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 125 N. Wilkinson Street in downtown Dayton. Tickets are $29 for adults, $27 for seniors and $14 for children. Show begins at 6:30 p.m. For more information, please visit daytonperformingarts.org or call 937.228.3630.
Gary Spencer is a graduate of Miami University and works in the performing arts, and believes that music is the best. Contact him at GarySpencer@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Gary Spencer is a graduate of Miami University and works in the performing arts, and believes that music is the best. Contact him at GarySpencer@DaytonCityPaper.com

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