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MUSIC AND DANCE/Chris Pasles : Would Handel Have Stood for Wagner's Rendition of 'Messiah?'

December 23, 1987|CHRIS PASLES

One of my earliest musical memories involves sitting in a grade school choir on stage with a number of adult church groups who sang choruses from Handel's "Messiah." We kids were there to pipe up with a few holiday selections--"Deck the Halls," "Jingle Bells," things like that--and until our moment in the limelight were to sit quietly while the adults sang. Then everybody was to join in a final "Silent Night."

But before that moment came, lightning struck. I'll never forget the thrill of hearing the adults sing "For Unto Us a Child Is Born." Sitting in the middle of all those wonderful rolling musical lines and notes, I found possibilities I still retain for what the sounds of heaven must be like.

That was the kind of concert that purists--and now probably I, too--would wince at. All those voices, undoubtedly all amateurs, singing their hearts out.

But in those unenlightened days, the notion was that the bigger the better, and why not bring everyone you could into it.

Then the scholars came along and taught us that music performances were vastly different in Handel's day: The choirs were much smaller, so was the orchestra and there were all sorts of differences in the style of playing the notes.

(Standard pitch was lower, instruments were built differently and produced different kinds of sound . . . you get the point.)

We gradually succumbed, and performances of the "Messiah" began drawing on fewer forces, attempting to follow what were termed "authentic performance practices," although strong debate continued over exactly what that meant.

I was put in mind of all this after hearing Roger Wagner conduct the "Messiah" on Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

Wagner had decided to draw on both but contradictory traditions. He used an orchestra of 26 members, mostly strings, which approached the size of an orchestra Handel might have used, although Handel's orchestra likely would have had fewer strings and lots more winds.

But Wagner also conducted a chorus made up of 198 singers, which hearkened to the bigger-is-better traditions of my youth.

To be sure, he tried to bridge the gap by drawing on only 48 singers for many of the choruses, suggesting what in Handel's day was the difference between using all the orchestral forces ( con ripieno ) and using a smaller body of instruments ( senza ripieno ) .

But with only 26 instrumentalists, there wasn't much point in dividing the orchestra in this way when it was pitted against a vocal force that was always at least twice its size and sometimes 7 1/2 times its size.

Also, there was a problem of overcoming inertia in getting nearly 200 singers to move up to the quicksilver speed and maintain the clear textures he could get with the smaller body of singers and instrumentalists. So while he was able to create a choral sound of tremendous depth utilizing the full chorus in "And the Glory of the Lord" or "Hallelujah!," to do so he had to switch gears in terms of tempo and style, which was unfortunate.

Wagner also made cuts in the score.

Handel himself made numerous changes in "Messiah" in the performances that he led, the differences usually determined by the soloists who were available. And if the composer can't make changes in his own work, who can?

But cuts also became traditional. The beat-up Schirmer edition I've been thumbing through for more than 30 years bears a note about which parts of the score are "customarily omitted."

In the new age, such musical editing is, of course, anathema.

But is it so awful to make cuts?

Yes, when the dramatic and musical transitions are abrupt and disconcerting. There is a dramatic as well as a musical plan in the "Messiah," and it distorts the composer's intention to alter this in any way.

Particularly bothersome on Saturday was Wagner's cutting from the grievous lament "Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs" to the jaunty "All We Like Sheep" without the intervening "And With His Stripes We Are Healed."

Not only are the tempo and character of the two choruses so different, but the theological point is lost that even with Christ's intervention mankind persists in willful error. Also diminished is Handel's slamming home of that point at the end of the chorus by changing key, dynamics and tempo for the line, "And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all."

On the other hand, in 1987, in an era of renewed and fearsome religious wars all over the globe, of hostages taken and reprisals made in the name of holy religion, perhaps it is not so awful to cut the aria "If God Be for Us, Who Can Be Against Us?"

It's far too easy to imagine troops marching into battle with that sentiment on their lips. Maybe next year the world will have learned how to apply that message in a purely spiritual way. But this year, those words are particularly disconcerting, and it might be a better holiday if no one indulged in the sentiment.

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