The 1966 Charles Mackerras recording of Handel's "Messiah" has rightfully achieved cult status among music lovers. It was one of the pioneering efforts in the successful movement to return to authentic performing traditions of Handel's day. Beyond that, it was--and is--widely regarded as one of the best performances of the work.
Mackerras, a highly respected conductor, used an edition created by great British musicologist Basil Lam. It turns out that Orange County's own William Hall, director of the Master Chorale and chairman of the music department at Chapman University in Orange, had a hand in that edition too.
"I was recording with the BBC in 1965 when I met Basil Lam, who was head of its classical division," Hall said.
"I told him I had just delivered a paper on ornamentation. He said, 'Really? Let's talk.' So that's how we became friends."
The idea behind the new edition was to get away from the stodgy, big orchestra and chorus performances of baroque music that had become standard in England and the United States. Letting the soloists ornament or add notes to their lines not only conformed to the original practices but also made the words more expressive.
"Originally, I would say the solos and the orchestra work were probably half Lam's and half mine, with a few ideas of Mackerras'," Hall said.
Never fully satisfied, Hall has continued to make changes.
"Now 80% of it is mine," he said. "I've honed it over these years. Lam and Mackerras didn't carry it as far as I thought they should."
Hall will lead his Master Chorale in the Lam/Hall edition of "Messiah" Sunday afternoon at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach. The timing of the performance during the Easter season, repeats Handel's own practice. ("Messiah" became a Christmas staple much later.)
The composer wrote the work for a charity performance in Dublin in 1742, and it reached London a year later. Handel revised and recast the piece at each performance he oversaw, from the premiere until his final concerts in London in 1759, adapting choruses or rewriting arias for the soloists at hand.
The Lam/Hall edition incorporates a number of once novel but now generally accepted performance practices from Handel's period. These include short, detached bowing and phrasing; crisp or dotted rhythms; and the use of ornamentation in the vocal and orchestral parts.
Singers of the day were expected to decorate their lines with tasteful and expressive ornaments, preferably on the spot. Classical singers today are taught to sing only what's on the page.
"I completely wrote out the ornamentation for the chorus and the soloists," Hall said.
He also penned in the bowing for the string instruments.
"A modern-day violinist will go to the strength of the bow and will stay in the center of the bow for a bigger stroke. We'll use the upper third of the bow. That changes the whole character of the music. With the upper part, you get a shorter stroke, a quieter approach. It's still a rich sound, but not the romantic sound of a full bow. The piece is now dance-like."
The chorus will have to emulate this style.
"The chorus articulates the way the way the string players articulate," Hall said. "When you hit a string, there is an immediate consonant sound. So the chorus has to anticipate that. They have to over-pronounce things."
The edition respects the 1742 Dublin premiere version at the Foundling Hospital and will include some often deleted choruses, plus a jaunty 12/8 version of "Rejoice greatly." (Handel later rewrote the aria in the more squarish 4/4 time, the version most familiar to audiences.)
Hall will conduct a chamber choir of 36, a large chorus of 120, an orchestra of 24, including harpsichordist Malcolm Hamilton and organist Ladd Thomas.
"The organ at St. Andrew's is spectacular, a great instrument and a great installation," Hall said.
"Hamilton has his own ornamented version of the 'Messiah,' " Hall said. "We originally did my edition in the late '60s and early '70s in Los Angeles. We had so much fun. 'Comfort ye' got to be more and more elaborated over the years."
Hall's soloists will be soprano Patricia Prunty, mezzo-soprano Wendy Hillhouse, tenor Jonathan Mack and bass Louis Lebherz, all of whom have sung the work previously with him.
"Regarding ornamentation, I said, 'Let's enjoy ourselves in rehearsal. Let's see what works and what doesn't.'
"I hope the audience will bring scores so they can see what we're doing. The work literally is a crescendo to the end, where you can let it all out. I know Handel blew it out at the end--a naturally crescendoing ritard. It just seems so right. Everything leads to that. I can't wait."
* William Hall will direct his Master Chorale in Handel's "Messiah" in the Basil Lam/William Hall edition Sunday at 3 p.m. at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, 600 St. Andrews Road, Newport Beach. $15-$38. (714) 556-6262.