A Handel Master on Building the Perfect ‘Messiah’
By Julian Wachner
Julian Wachner, the director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street in New York, organizes hundreds of performances each year for the church. But he has become best known for his annual “Messiah,” perhaps the best of the city’s many versions of Handel’s classic oratorio. It cannot take place this year in person, of course, but on Dec. 13 Trinity will stream a 2019 performance on Facebook.
There are so many Handel “Messiahs,” since it’s the rare piece that has stayed in the repertory since it was written, almost 300 years ago. It’s changed with the times. There’s Handel’s version, of course. Less than 50 years later, Mozart made a version and added winds. In the 19th century, Ebenezer Prout did an arrangement with trombones, and in the 1950s, Eugene Goossens added cymbals, glockenspiel, harp. Andrew Davis has done one more recently.
So today “Messiah” is being presented in so many different ways. The purely historically informed way — which tries to get back as much as possible to Handel’s time — is happening, of course, but it’s not what everyone necessarily loves. I get as much negative feedback for doing it as positive. Some of the most negative feedback was always from my dad; he passed away this year, but he and I just totally disagreed on the concept of early music. He wanted Handel to sound like all the other, primarily 19th-century music that he knew.
When the historical performance movement began in earnest, I was part of the first generation that didn’t have to unlearn the piece to relearn the piece. I’m 51, and my time as a boy chorister coincided with New York City’s first historically informed “Messiah.” That was in 1979, with Gerre Hancock leading the Concert Royal and the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys. It was lean and clean, and probably not that much different than how I do things now.
One of the things that the historically informed performance movement did has nothing to do with historical performance — I mean with using the “right” instruments, the “right” tuning, the “right” tempos, all of that. In terms of any kind of interpretation, one of the major things about “Messiah” is, it is 52 movements long. If you think of it as a multi-movement work, in which you take time between each movement, that is a very specific choice that is based out of the concert hall; it becomes a concert piece, where each movement is a discrete thing. If you were to just look at the piece, there’s no reason you wouldn’t approach it that way.
But obviously that’s not what I do. And it’s because the historical performance movement reintroduced modern performers to opera from the 17th and 18th centuries, and we started to rediscover Handel as an opera composer. Once you perform a Handel opera, you can never perform “Messiah” the same way again. So the dynamic has to do with people from the lyric stage versus the concert stage. Once you look at “Messiah” as a dramatic piece — even though from the libretto, it’s one of the least dramatically inclined works there is — the music is so clearly organized to drive forward.