Two performances on Dec. 22 by world-class musicians
By Kevin E. Foley
In the 271 years since George Frideric Handel first presented his sacred oratorio Messiah to an audience in Dublin, Ireland, it has become a much beloved and well-attended musical event at Christmastime throughout the world even though Handel intended it as an Easter tribute. New York City cultural institutions and churches typically offer several versions of the work during the holiday season.
Before regional music lovers plan train or car trips down to the classical music capital to the south, they should know that this 2013 holiday season they can experience a rare performance of Messiah right here in the heart of the Village of Cold Spring.
A number of New York’s finest Messiah-seasoned musicians and singers will travel up the Hudson to fill St. Mary’s in-the-Highlands Episcopal Church with the sounds of Handel’s inspired baroque composition performed on period instruments.
Conducting the production’s 21 musicians, four soloist singers and a chorus of nearly two dozen for afternoon (2 p.m.) and early evening (5 p.m.) Messiah performances on Sunday, Dec. 22, will be Gordon Stewart (also publisher of this newspaper). Most recently Stewart directed and conducted the music for another 18th-century masterwork, John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, which had 12 sold-out performances at the Philipstown Depot Theatre in Garrison.
Significantly the core of first-rate orchestra musicians from Beggar’s Opera, recruited by the concert master and well-known violinist Rachel Evans, agreed to return and encouraged highly accomplished colleagues to join in these two special Messiah performances.
“Every Messiah is a unique site-specific work. Handel himself prepared and conducted four separate productions with multiple performances of each. The performances in our own community will be carrying on traditions of love for the often soaring and sometimes searing solo and choral movements that have long endured in communities from the coal mining cities of England, to mass sing-alongs in vast halls, to rarefied reconstructions of one of Handel’s original performances,” said Stewart. “Purists might say ‘survived’ is more like it. But for all its historic authenticity, this unique 75-minute production also embraces the affection felt by so many millions over so many years for moments they know by heart.
“Some will be hearing Messiah for the first time. Others for the umpteenth. For all of us it will be both the unique Philipstown 2013 version, and connect us to communities in concert halls, churches, and even living rooms as each experiences this great musical work for all times,” he said.
Stewart’s version will hew close to Handel’s original presentations in terms of the size of the company of players. Among the special features will be the use of replicas of 18th-century period instruments by the musicians. “The instruments give the music a plangent, softer sound, a fractional tone lower than we are used to,” Stewart said.
Stewart described Messiah as having “an extraordinary universality. It has an overall intensity with a very emotional core. The work goes from absolutely triumphant to intimate,” he said.
Stewart also emphasized that just as Handel often donated the proceeds from Messiah performances to charity groups, sales of $20 tickets for the two St. Mary’s performances will go directly to the church and the Philipstown food pantry. There are special seating tickets for individuals willing to contribute more to the charities. Tickets can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com. A reception will be held between the two performances.
The Messiah orchestra will have 21 of the top professional period instrument players from the finest New York City orchestras, and about the same size chorus, along with four outstanding soloists. These musicians have performed in the annual Messiahs at Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, Saint Thomas Church, and Trinity Church.
The soloists include tenor Steven Brennfleck and bass Dashon Burton, both of whom sang Messiah at Avery Fisher last year. Burton will be singing it at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 23. Beacon resident Gabriela Mikova Johnson will perform the soprano solos.
And of very special local interest, this will be the first time Philipstown residents can fully appreciate why Vincent Tamagna’s son Nicholas Tamagna has built a highly successful international career as a countertenor.
Conductor Stewart, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Oberlin College, holds a master’s degree from the University of Chicago; a certificate in theater and music from the University of Vienna; and a master’s in fine arts from the Yale University Drama School. He left theater and music to become deputy chief speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, followed by a career in the political, business, and international affairs worlds.