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More meaning in this 'Messiah'

To communicate a greater depth, the Master Chorale's director focuses that much more on the text of Handel's masterpiece.

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 27, 2001


To communicate a greater depth, the Master Chorale's director focuses that much more on the text of Handel's masterpiece.

Messiah after Christmas? Usually Handel's masterpiece is performed earlier in December, but Richard Zielinski thinks it might be better appreciated now that the hustle and bustle of the shopping season is over.

"It's been a different Messiah," he said. "It's given us more time to reflect on the message and the music."

Zielinski, artistic director of the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, conducts the chorus and vocal soloists and the Florida Orchestra in the oratorio in Tampa and St. Petersburg performances this weekend.

In rehearsals, Zielinski has stressed the importance of the text, whose passages are taken from the Bible. "I've even handed out the text to the orchestra players and asked them to review the biblical references so they know what inspired Handel to write this piece of music," he said.

Messiah, originally a Lenten oratorio, premiered April 13, 1742, in Dublin, Ireland. It is probably the most-performed choral work in the world because of its omnipresence at Christmas. Handel composed it -- over an amazingly rapid 24-day stretch -- for a concert to benefit two hospitals and a debtors prison.

The work lends itself to unlimited musical forces, with some gargantuan productions in Victorian England numbering more than 3,000 singers. This weekend, Zielinski will lead about 125 choristers, six soloists and just over 30 orchestra players.

Every chorus director has worked on many a Messiah. Zielinski's most influential experience with it came in the mid-1980s when he was a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music, singing in the tenor section in a performance led by baroque scholars Alfred Mann and Jens Peter Larsen.

"Much of my presentation comes out of that time with them, the baroque phrasing, the clarity of it," he said. "It's an approach that focuses on the text and brings out the theatrics and spirituality of the piece. I think you'll find that the performance will be full of emotion. As simple as that sounds, sometimes we forget about the text because we get so involved in singing the right notes and the right rhythms."

He strives to retain the baroque character of the score: "I was taught that the word 'baroque' came from a word that means 'flawed pearl.' It's all about contrast. I'm really working for contrast in this performance. So much of the message of the Messiah is about light and darkness."

This weekend's performance will not be the full work. The 21 movements of Part 1 will be intact, but 19 of the 32 movements in Parts 2 and 3 will be cut. "This is one of the abbreviated versions that I have found that not only the chorus and orchestra but also the audience still get the message of the entire piece," Zielinski said, adding that the orchestra's management urged him to keep the entire performance, including intermission, under two hours.

Zielinski finds a parallel in the charitable roots of Handel's oratorio and current-day problems in funding arts organizations such as the orchestra.

"The story in this libretto of Christ's life serves as a reminder to us to help those who are in need," he wrote in an e-mail last week. "In most communities, like ours, the arts are in need. One biographer wrote: 'Messiah has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan . . . more than any other single musical production in this (England) or any other country.' It has also helped many arts organizations over the past 100 years stay afloat. Could these concerts be benefit performances for the Florida Orchestra?"

Preview

Handel's Messiah is performed by the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and the Florida Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Mahaffey Theater. Tickets: $20-$38. (813) 286-2403.

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