Handelian Holidays Program Notes

Concert info: https://philharmonianw.org/concert-3-handelian-holidays/

Seasons are marked in many ways: pumpkin spice lattes, a dusting of snow, a crocus rising from the garden. We understand the passage of time as much with our senses as with our calendars. This fact may be presented in its purest form with the melodies of George Fredrick Handel’s Messiah, which signal the entrance of the holidays like nothing else. At this time of the year, a multitude of orchestras and choirs are performing this work with the familiar strains from choruses, such as what we will hear today, eliciting a Pavlovian-type response: we have truly entered the holiday season.

First premiered in Dublin in April of 1742, Handel’s oratorio, Messiah, was intended to celebrate not Christmas but Lent and the preparation for Easter. The libretto, which was compiled by Handel’s longtime collaborator Charles Jennens, is made up almost entirely of passages from the Old Testament and the Psalms, with a few short passages from the New Testament. While the premiere in Dublin was well received, subsequent performances in London were met with a lukewarm reception, with criticism of the work’s overt religiosity. Consistent programming secured Messiah’s place within public interest and, by 1900, a performance of the work was a sure-fire way to pack a church at Easter. Savvy marketers came to see Messiah as equally appropriate for Jesus’ birth as for his death, and by the 1960s it had almost completely transformed into a Christmas event.

Though the history of Handel’s Messiah is fascinating, there is nothing quite like the sound. Today’s concert features several of the most cherished choruses and instrumental interludes from Messiah, including the famous “Hallelujah” Chorus. Though you may have heard this music numerous times, listen with new ears to what is a high benchmark in Baroque music. Handel’s setting of complex texts is unmatched and his melodies are orchestrated in ways that have set the standard for vocal accompaniment. In the midst, and often overlooked, is Handel’s writing for strings, which we hear so profoundly this afternoon in the interlude, “Pifa.” Taking its name from the Italian bagpipe players known as pifferai, this movement evokes the pastoral setting associated with the birth of Christ and is a reminder that Handel was both a popular composer and a master craftsman.

The second half of today’s program presents an array of diverse choral music including several pieces created by living composers. Premiering in 2021, Indian American composer Reena Esmail’s enchanting The Unexpected Early Hour is a carol composed to a newly created text, with music referencing Hindustani modal traditions. Dale Trumbore’s In the Middle, while not distinctly referencing holiday traditions, reminds us of the passage of time and holding on to the love of family, both passed and living. The text reads: Each day, we must learn again how to love, between morning’s quick coffee and evening’s slow return.” Indulging in more traditional holiday themes, both Sally Beamish’s In the Stillness and Florence Price’s Song for the Snow are modern carols that evoke the contented feelings we often associate with snowy landscapes and cozy spaces.

Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s stunning Song of the Universal sets a poem by Walt Whitman. Like several of the works heard today, Song of the Universal is not directly related to the holidays but brings us to themes commonly associated with them including fellowship, love, and faith. Listen for the glorious string writing, not unlike Handel’s, which supports the soaring nature of the text, and the subtle ways Gjeilo guides us between tension, release, high energy, and rest. Whitman’s words bring us to the heart of the matter: “Come, said the Muse. Sing me a song no poet yet has chanted. Sing me the Universal.” 

Closing out today’s concert are two more traditional holiday pieces, bringing us to simple joys, which is a fitting moment to acknowledge the many years of collaboration between Philharmonia Northwest and Kirkland Choral Society, with Glenn Gregg as conductor. As maestro Gregg steps down from the podium this year, we give thanks for many wonderful moments of music-making.

James Falzone

Dean and Professor of Music

Cornish College of the Arts