With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, it's time to cozy up to December's festivities. Albeit, COVID-19 is still throwing a monkey wrench in the traditions we've all become accustomed to, but Houston Symphony is keeping the holiday traditions alive with this year's A Baroque Christmas, running Friday through Sunday at Jones Hall and via livestream.
The program includes giants of the Baroque period, including great arias from Handel’s "Messiah" as well as Arcangelo Corelli’s "Christmas Concerto" and arias from Bach’s "Christmas Oratorio." Guest Conductor Nic McGegan leads the Houston Symphony and a starry quartet of vocal soloists from the world of opera: soprano Angela Meade, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges in her Houston Symphony debut, tenor Chad Shelton and bass Morris Robinson. McGegan most recently worked with Houston Symphony this year in Mozart's "Jupiter" and Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons."
McGegan, who is lauded as “one of the finest baroque conductors” by the London's Independent, has become somewhat of the go-to guy for Baroque pieces, especially "Messiah."
"I’ve probably conducted it over 150 times over my lifetime. It’s not an unknown piece, but it’s always different. It was only last December I was doing this piece in Houston for what you might call a normal 'Messiah.' This year, of course, will be completely different. The singers are much more from the opera realm rather than what you might consider early music singers. It's more of an adventure than 'Messiah' usually is," McGegan said.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the full compliment of the Houston Symphony Chorus is not an option for this year, but the ever resourceful orchestra and conductor have modified the program to spotlight the soloists.
"'Messiah' is a remarkably flexible piece. This was originally going to be a big 'Messiah.' In other words, it was going to be an arrangement by Sir Andrew Davis. It was going to use large operatic voices rather than the smaller voices we used previously," he added about the versatility of Handel's composition. "I’ve conducted this piece where we had more than 300 people in the chorus. I’m quite used to a 'mega-Messiah.' But of course, we can’t have 'mega' anything anymore, and we can’t have a full chorus. The orchestra is also smaller because of social distancing. We have an interesting mix of larger voices that are associated with a big 'Messiah' but with a small orchestra. That will be great fun."
One of those soloists is Shelton, a Houstonian remembered for his many performances with Houston Grand Opera. After the city's performing arts mostly went on hiatus, Shelton is eager to get back to the stage he loves so much.
"How grateful we are as singers to do anything remotely normal or remotely related to singing in public. It’s exciting for us. It should be exciting for whoever gets to go or hear the concert as well," he said. "What they get out of it is hopefully a reminder of what could be happening. Maybe next year we’ll be able to do the 'Messiah' that we were supposed to do this year."
Shelton is reminded of the rarity of performing live during a pandemic, both by his own career and his wife's.
"The fact that we get to do anything is shocking to me, especially with these massive waves peaking. My wife is a nurse, and she comes home telling me stories. When coronavirus first hit in March, she started working with COVID-19 patients. It’s a scary gig, especially after hearing stories from her. She’s lost coworkers from it. It’s just devastating," he said.
Both Shelton and McGegan view the concert as a time to remain thankful and enjoy the beauty of the arts, especially in a season so closely tied to music. McGegan also noted that Houston Symphony's nimbleness throughout the pandemic has created both a working model for performing arts organizations as well as a respite during the holidays.
He said, "Houston Symphony is really on the cutting edge of doing these almost weekly online concerts. That’s absolutely fantastic! There are symphonies out there still trying to work it out. Some orchestras have cancelled their entire seasons. Houston Symphony is doing amazing programming and finding innovative ways of getting the music out to the audiences. It’s made a difference for the morale of the orchestra, and the Houston Symphony name is reaching to other parts of the world because this is what people are tuning into. I feel fortunate to be a part of it."
Houston Symphony's A Baroque Christmas plays 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. The Saturday performance is available via livestream. For information, visit houstonsymphony.org or call 713-224-7575. $20.
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