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'Messiah,' a Seasonal Standard Standing Strong

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2004; Page C04

It is likely that George Frideric Handel would have been astonished by the enduring success of his "Messiah" (1742). He dashed off the score in a mere three weeks -- yet another in his long series of choral pieces, some of which are every bit as beautiful and rewarding as "Messiah" -- but it was a hit from the beginning. Today it is a safe guess that more people own recordings of "Messiah" than of any other classical work and, for many listeners, from devout Christians to thoroughgoing secularists, it simply doesn't seem like December until they've taken in a performance or two.

For more than half a century, the National Symphony Orchestra has presented an annual "Messiah." Tonight, Paul Goodwin, the associate conductor of the Academy of Ancient Music in London, will make his NSO debut conducting the work, with soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot, countertenor Brian Asawa, tenor Benjamin Butterfield, baritone George Mosley and the Master Chorale of Washington, which is directed by Donald McCullough. The performance will be repeated tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday.

Paul Goodwin will conduct the NSO in Handel's Christmastime classic. (Hans Hordijk)

During Handel's lifetime, "Messiah" was regularly used to raise money for charity. Indeed, the music historian Charles Burney wrote that it "fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan." In that spirit, the NSO has invited volunteers from the Capital Area Food Bank to accept donations of commercially canned goods at all four performances, for distribution to the needy.

This is only one of the many and variegated traditions surrounding "Messiah." Another is the habit of standing during "Hallelujah," the great chorus that concludes Part 2. Virtually everybody does it -- at least in English-speaking nations -- but nobody seems to know just why.

Here's the most prevalent theory: It is said that King George II stood during an early London performance, and the audience -- subjects of the realm -- could not remain seated while the monarch was on his feet. But this may be an apocryphal story, and the practice actively annoys some conductors. I once saw David Randolph furiously wave down an eager audience at one of his Masterwork Chorus performances of "Messiah" in Carnegie Hall. And the late Robert Shaw generally included a request that patrons remain seated during "Hallelujah" whenever he conducted the work.

In 1998, Tom Lumb, the music librarian of the Festival Singers in Wellington, New Zealand, posted an Internet query to chorus directors around the world, asking what the practice was in their areas. He received almost 50 responses, of which the following, all unattributed but authentic-sounding, are some of the more interesting:

• "Of course, there is no musical (or 'liturgical') reason to stand during the Hallelujah chorus. However, it is a centuries-old tradition, and not one likely to die. I would certainly not recommend putting a blurb in the bulletin asking the people to remain seated. Illogical or no, many of them are going to feel cheated, others will think it's sacrilegious. And I think I would stand anyway."

• "In every 'Messiah' performance I've ever done (or attended) here in Washington, D.C., most of the audience stands -- with some folks happily jumping to their feet, either to demonstrate their cultural 'knowledge' or to get a chance to stretch before the break. I have never, however, seen the queen (or any king) present at any of these performances."

• "Whenever we do the chorus, I always turn to the audience before we start and ask them to rise . . . because what really bothers me is all the commotion which takes place in the first 10-15 bars of the piece (when you don't make them rise) while they decide to rise and take their noisy time getting up."

Another correspondent suggested that King George II was hard of hearing and stood because he thought they were playing "God Save the King"!

(The entire list of responses can be viewed at www.festival-singers.org.nz/haleluia.htm).

Finally, there are varying traditions regarding the actual performance of "Messiah" itself. In Victorian England, immense renditions -- with inflated orchestras and thousands of choristers -- were great crowd-pleasers. However, when Sir Thomas Beecham recorded something along those lines in the late 1950s, he was vilified by baroque scholars for his perceived lack of historical authenticity. As usual, however, the conductor was ready with a cutting response. "A musicologist is somebody who can read music but can't hear it," he sniffed -- and that, as they say, was that.

The NSO does "Messiah" a little differently each year. The present set of performances will pair a medium-size chorus with a chamber ensemble sifted from the orchestra's ranks, allowing us to contemplate Handel's crystalline linear transparency rather than cosmic conceptions of heavenly grandeur, 19th-century style. In whatever fashion it is played and sung, however, it seems likely that "Messiah" will continue to reign -- forever and ever -- during the holiday season.

Messiah will be performed tonight at 7, tomorrow and Saturday nights at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 1. Tickets range from $20 to $77. For information, go to www.nationalsymphony.org or call 202-467-4600.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company