Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Seattle's Periodic Period Messiah

St. Mark's Cathedral, Seattle
Photo: Marissa Meyer
It is possible that the Messiah tradition at St. Mark’s Cathedral would have begun earlier had Peter Hallock, the music director from 1951 to 1991, not viewed Handel oratorios as “monstrously boring.” It took a hearing of Colin Davis’s 1966 recording of the work to change his mind. The recording, which Hallock says was the first time he had heard Handel performed in a way that made any sense, inspired the first performance of Messiah at St. Mark’s Cathedral in 1968 with members of the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, using modern instruments. Seattle's first historically informed performances of the work using period instruments were held December 12-14, 1985. This ‘new’ approach to the performance was a hit—concerts sold out easily and music critics loved them, ushering in a new standard of historic performance practice of the masterpiece in Seattle. Upon Hallock’s departure from the cathedral in 1991, J. Melvin Butler and Doug Fullington took on the tradition. During the next decade, the novelty of Seattle’s first period Messiah wore off, normalizing revenues while production expenses grew—it costs a pretty penny flying in and accommodating the latest hot soloist! In 2002, Cathedral Associates canceled the Messiah tradition because costs had stretched beyond available resources.

Peter Hallock, 2009
[There have been several attempts to restart the tradition. The Tudor Choir and Seattle Baroque Orchestra joined forces and presented the work at St. Mark’s Cathedral in 2006, and 2007 and 2009 at Town Hall.]

Cathedral Associates’s decision to cancel the Messiah tradition was justifiable. The production cost about $70,000 annually ($100,000 in today’s dollars), mostly in musician fees—the orchestra and choir are all professional musicians, as are the soloists who were imported from all over the world. After the third year in a row losing about $17,000, they threw in the towel. The market had also become saturated with Messiahs—audiences could go to Benaroya or attend any number of sing-alongs to get their fix.


Handel wrote Messiah originally for modest vocal and instrumental forces. In the years after his death, particularly during the Victorian era, there was a phase when Messiah was performed by larger and larger ensembles as if competing to see just how big a chorus and orchestra could be crammed onto one stage. Mozart even got in on the action with his own arrangement, which was not to everyone’s taste. One critic said that it “resembles elegant stucco work upon an old marble temple… easily… chipped off again by the weather.” The trend in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been toward performing Messiah with intimate, more modest instrumentation.

Ironically in Seattle—one of the early music centers in the Pacific Northwest—the intimate version is in scarce supply. Larger productions by well-established musical organizations like the Seattle Symphony dominate the scene, along with the ever-growing number of sing-alongs that accompany them. While we applaud their efforts for keeping Messiah in the classical mainstream, Handel originally conceived the work for much smaller instrumental and choral forces.


Our Messiah ‘Reboot,’ performed by 18 players on baroque period instruments and 16 singers, is more what Handel had in mind. One may worry about the smaller ensemble lacking the punch of a larger orchestra and choir. On the contrary, the dynamic range of the work is much easier to hear with fewer musicians, making for a more exciting, larger-than-life performance. The increased clarity allows the audience to hear the athleticism in each musical line that larger productions lack. The sound of baroque instruments is also unique. Compared to their modern counterparts, they tend to be quieter and brighter and are well-suited to the fast-moving demands of the ornate oratorio. By hiring a professional choir of only 16 singers instead of a tour de force symphonic chorus, you are able to hear the small details in the choral writing that make Messiah an intricate baroque masterpiece.

We believe we have found a financially sustainable way to present a unique, intimate Messiah once again in Seattle. Although Messiah is often performed in December, an April performance (the weekend after Easter) avoids the threat of snow, keeping revenue up. We are fortunate to employ the excellent local singers right here in the Pacific Northwest. By hiring locally, we save money on the flight and hotel costs we would need to pay for out-of-state soloists. The soloists (nine total) are selected from the choir, allowing us the artistic freedom to assign solos to precisely the right voice type.

We hope you will enjoy our reboot. We are looking forward to showing you why this Messiah tradition is worth reviving.

MESSIAH PERFORMANCES featuring the Byrd Ensemble and Seattle Baroque Orchestra

Friday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m.
Bastyr University
14500 Juanita Dr NE
Kenmore, WA 98028
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Saturday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m.
St. Mark's Cathedral
1245 10th Ave E
Seattle, WA 98102
Buy Tickets
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Hallelujah! Seattle Baroque and the Tudor Choir recreate musical history for the holidays.
Tudor’s “Messiah” makes a comeback
Seattle Baroque Orchestra and Tudor Choir revive period performances of 'Messiah'

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