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Chorus Classic

Messiah brings a rare opportunity for HSO group

Crisis came to George Frederick Handel in the summer of 1741. His failing health and flagging career threatened to ruin his prominence as the preeminent opera composer of his day. The German-born composer -- whom the English claim as their own -- was paralyzed by a stroke and beleaguered by rival impresarios who threatened to bankrupt his opera company. In a frenzy of 21 days, he wrote a Bible-based oratorio -- vocal work -- that culminated everything he'd done before. Then he felt the inspiration to write 12 more like it, based on the Old Testament and classical mythology.

And the Messiah was born, with premieres in London and Dublin. This week, the seasonal classic returns to Houston.

Though never as popular then as it is now, Messiah is the timeless story of Christian suffering and redemption dramatically rendered through powerful narrative led by soloists, with a commentary provided by the chorus. The Houston Symphony and guest conductor Harry Bicket of England bring the tale to Jones Hall December 18 through 20. Featured soloists making their Houston Symphony debut are soprano Kendra Colton, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Dudley and bass-baritone Eduardo Chama. Returning is tenor John McVeigh.

Entertainment is their goal, but Handel himself told of striving to morally elevate his listeners through the experience. Harry Bicket, of course, seems perfectly suited to carry this off, coming from the very English tradition that popularized the work so immensely. Bicket is well regarded as an opera conductor, reputedly one of the best choral directors around -- and a popular choice for Messiah.

But if present-day impresarios share Handel's didactic purpose, it seems wrong-headed to hype the show as a star vehicle for conductors and soloists, as we do with every other local symphonic concert. Oratorio developed alongside opera during Handel's day, and it had many of the same elements: a story written to instrumental music for voices, a chorus and a narrative for the stage. The differences? The oratorio's narrative derived from sacred origins. Unlike opera, it tended to feature the chorus.

Dramatic roles of the chorus always seem to be neglected. In Greek tragedy, and even at a church Passion, people take them for granted. That would not be the case, if they had witnessed the recent Houston Symphony Chorus rehearsal of Messiah. Few may realize it's not Christoph Eschenbach or Robert Shaw who spend hours stopping or starting this extremely talented group midway through a measure, halting their lilting strains in midnote to ensure a sixteenth note isn't dragged into an eighth. Charles Hausmann, a music professor and choral director at UH, stands in front of these singers, week after week, year after year. He prepares them for the conductor, who steps in only a couple of times before the show.

Rehearsals may stretch hours with the stops and starts through 15 songs. At this recent practice Hausmann dramatically waved his arms midway in the second sing-through of "And He Shall Purify."

"This is not opera," he warned them. Baroque music -- the timbre, the articulation -- is meant to be subtle, the director explained. They went through the gorgeous devotional "For Unto Us a Child is Born," with Hausmann frequently stopping to coach the altos -- or sopranos -- independently of the others. Occasionally drilling the bass section on maintaining consistent resonance, he lapsed into droll mimicry of their diction that made it hard to keep a straight face.

Moving through the ponderous, almost dissonant, "Behold the Lamb of God," Hausmann continued in the same vein. The more he interrupted, clapping loudly to a beat, as if to increase the energy in the room, the more easily they internalized the baroque pattern of stresses. They obediently repeated the measures, honing clarity, diction and timing.

To Hausmann, the main challenge for the chorus is staying unified as an ensemble and resisting the easy urge to get carried away by Handel's music. After all, it's Handel they're singing to, one of baroque theater's greatest composers. "If you get too carried away, you get a quasi-operatic spectacle. We're not singing solos on stage. We have to sublimate ourselves to the music and the ensemble," Hausmann says. He says it's also difficult for the chorus to keep the diction precise, because they're so familiar with the songs, after singing them for so many years. "Often, the better you know something, the worse you sing it."

Part of the magic of this weekend's Messiah will be in Hausmann's invisible hand. Known for his ability to mimic the conducting gestures and timing of Eschenbach and Shaw, the choral director has learned to match the performing conductor's style and interpretation. This is for the benefit of the chorus, so they will be more in line when he turns them over for the opening night. (Never having seen Bicket perform, Hausmann traded notes with him over the phone, singing and marking his Messiah book, while Bicket sang back measure for measure.)

Hausmann's behind-the-scenes devotion should be apparent on opening night. As the Houston Symphony Chorus stands behind the orchestra and the glittering soloists during Messiah, they, too, will assume a place of prominence granted to them by the sacred music of Handel.

The Houston Symphony and Chorus will perform Handel's Messiah, December 18 through 20, at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 227-

 
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