Once you peel away the wrapping and the tinsel, nothing speaks as profoundly to the heart of Christmas as “The Messiah” does.
Michael Christie, the Phoenix Symphony’s Music Director Laureate, returns from his position with the Minnesota Opera to lead this week’s performances of Handel’s oratorio telling of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Christie chatted with GetOut about why “The Messiah” is an important work and the unique context the Phoenix Symphony provides for it.
Q: Why is ‘The Messiah’ so meaningful to you?
MC: ‘The Messiah’ is one of the greatest examples of a composer linking musical expression to such an epic personal and spiritual journey. That’s why it’s been so beloved for hundreds of years. It’s written in such a way that it’s malleable, and everyone can bring their distinctive view to it. It reminds me that Jesus is portrayed as a man. Being drawn back to that realization is powerful, and Handel’s ‘Messiah’ does that. I’m happy to play it anywhere.
Q: The string players use baroque bows (circa 1600-1750) and are playing on gut strings. How does this impact the sound and the performance quality?
MC: The Herberger Family Foundation procured the bows and strings and brought various early music specialists to work with players. It’s such a different thing to play on these baroque bows. It’s like you’re driving a Cadillac one day and a Porsche the next. (Baroque bows) are weighted less, with more weight at the frog. It’s more slippery and has more zing to it. Modern bows are weighted more evenly to create uniformity. That alone people had to get used to.
Q: What’s the value in re-creating styles and techniques used 200-plus years ago?
MC: If you’re telling the story and you’ve considered these technical (aspects), the storytelling becomes that much more potent. That’s why it requires super-trained, professional musicians to do it. The story can’t wait for someone less proficient. To hear that transparency and type of care is one of the great reasons to have professional musicians play these kinds of works.
Q: Do other symphony orchestras around the United States perform ‘The Messiah’ with period bows and strings?
MC: I only know of ensembles that do period music. I can’t think of another symphony orchestra that’s worked this hard to give tools to their performers. Our interpretation is more fleet than people normally experience. I try to make sure it doesn’t get plodding and boring.
It’s a great piece for families. It’s a full symphony concert, but it’s not longer than that. We made minor cuts, but it’s a pretty full version. It definitely keeps people’s attention.
IF YOU GO
What: The Phoenix Symphony and Phoenix Symphony Chorus perform Handel’s “Messiah.”
When/Where: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12, Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13, Camelback Bible Church; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church; 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15, Pinnacle Presbyterian Church.
Cost: $20-$49, depending on venue.
Information: (602) 495-1999 or PhoenixSymphony.org