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Alan Gilbert on Handel's Messiah: Nov. 20, 2009

Alan Gilbert
Alan Gilbert Conductor
Ultimate Handel Messiah Playlist
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On Friday, November 20, Artistic Director Dr. Nolan Gasser spoke with Maestro Alan Gilbert, the new conductor and Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, about the perennial holiday favorite, Handel's oratorio Messiah – which happens to be one of Mr. Gilbert's favorites as well! In this delightful conversation, Maestro Gilbert shares his thoughts on what makes Handel's oratorio such a special and universal masterpiece, as well as his approach to performing the work, his favorite numbers, and much more. An inspiring conversation, and a great way to get into the holiday spirit! Plus, we are pleased to present an "Ulimate Handel's Messiah Playlist" - offering a 1-Click "dream compilation" of outstanding Messiah recordings.

“There's something about Messiah that just speaks to the human condition ... something about it is so profoundly meaningful ... so universal ... it's just literally, the gift that keeps on giving ...”

  • Nolan Gasser: We're heading now into the Christmas season, and I've come to understand that a perennial favorite, Handel's Messiah, holds a special place in your musical heart...

  • Alan Gilbert Alan Gilbert: Yes, I love the piece. I performed it with the New York Philharmonic a few years ago [2004]; I think it was the second year they did it – it's become an annual tradition now. Messiah has always been one of my favorite pieces. It's really profound music and an absolutely joy to listen to. I think what makes it special is that it can be appreciated on so many levels: it's obviously a religious work, but it can be fully understood and loved within a secular context as well. If you go into a deep analysis of the musical structure of the work, and the compositional techniques he uses, there's an endless trove of treasures to be found. But also, you can simply listen to it! It's just beautiful music and affecting whether you believe the words, whether you are a music expert, or whatever... I think it's an inviting work on basically every possible level.

  • NG: Absolutely it is. Now, given your passion for it, I wonder if there are particular fond memories of attending a Messiah performance or sing-along – perhaps at Avery Fisher, or Riverside Church – that you have as a child?

  • Alan Gilbert AG: I did attend a sing-along very early on, and I can't say it totally grabbed me the first time I heard it – I was quite young. My next contact with the piece, if I'm not mistaken, was playing the work with an amateur orchestra and chorus, conducted by Bruce Adolphe – he's a wonderful teacher and composer, who has been working with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Since Bruce was my teacher at Julliard pre-college for theory and analysis, we talked about the piece, and he started alerting me to the musical magic it contains. Playing the piece with him – he's a wonderful musician – started to pique my interest.

    Then, I didn't have a lot to do with the work for a number of years. I conducted holiday concerts in Cleveland, when I was a second conductor there; it was a tradition to always have the “Hallelujah Chorus” in these concerts, and that was always a thrill. Those Cleveland Orchestra holiday concerts are a wonderful thing but frankly, you perform the same program perhaps twenty times – though there were two conductors, and so we shared them–and so it could get, let's say, repetitive. The Cleveland Orchestra is a very professional group, and they always give their best, but it's difficult to play the same music twenty times in a two-week span. But the one piece that somehow got everybody's blood boiling every single time, no matter how many times you repeated it, was the “Hallelujah Chorus”.

  • NG: [laughter] Yes, it does that!

  • AG: Yes, it's that kind of piece – you just can't possibly get tired of it! It was a few years later that I was asked to conduct the entire work with the Philharmonic – and I really delved into it. Another good friend of mine, who's a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, said to me, “Oh, the Messiah – that's my favorite piece.” And at that time, honestly, it hadn't occurred to me that the Messiah could be anybody's favorite piece. I knew it was a masterpiece, but because I respect him so much, I started thinking about it a different way – and you know what? It really is about as good as it gets! It's funny, these happy influences take their effect on the way we perceive things, and the way we approach things, just generally in life and in music. It really primed me to expect a lot from the piece as I dealt with it that time around. And it was really born out! There's no limit to what the piece can offer you. It's no accident that it's probably the most popular piece of music that there is.

  • NG: Indeed, any work that has that kind of staying power obviously has some serious magic to it. Thinking of all of those riveting performances of the “Hallelujah Chorus” by the Cleveland Orchestra, reminds me of the anecdote of Handel coming out from his studio crying after writing the “Hallelujah Chorus”, saying he just saw the face of God!

    So, it sounds as if your first full encounter conducting the work was with the New York Philharmonic in 2004 at Riverside Church?

  • AG: Yes, that's right. I would say that I was already very familiar with the work, but that was the first time I really dealt with it, and learned it to the level of performing it myself.

  • NG: Now, Messiah, along with Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker stands in a singular place in the Holiday repertoire – here in the States especially; without doubt, there are 1000s of performances of this work each year in theaters and churches around the world. Of course, it's not any one thing that can bring a work such success, but can you share with us your thoughts on what musically gives Messiah such incredible appeal and staying power?

  • Alan Gilbert AG: Well, Handel was one of the great masters of all time. I think it was Beethoven who said that Handel was able to get the most out of the least number of forces. I don't think he was only talking about numbers, but rather to extract the most effect – and affect – from a minimum of musical materials. There's something about this piece that just speaks to the human condition. I think the inspiration is obviously religious, and if you are religious, it must be very stirring to hear this music – because something about it is so profoundly meaningful, and it seems so sincere and so true. But, even if you're not, musically there's something so universal about the piece... It would be very interesting, actually, to start to figure out – and I don't think anyone ever has – what makes great music “great.” It certainly is a very interesting question...

  • NG: [laughter] Yes, that would be the $64,000 question...

  • AG: [laughter] Yeah, if we knew it, I guess there'd be... well, it's obviously not know-able... Suffice to say, this piece, certainly, is that! It has everything: it tells a story – a musical story; it has the widest possible range of feelings; it is so honestly conceived, and it's simply beautiful.

  • NG: It is a marvelous thing about history – that it is able to eventually discern that which is really truly “great” within the canon - as it has with the Messiah

  • AG: Yes, it's obviously not an accident that it's as popular as it is. Like Beethoven's 5th Symphony, you know? Sometimes people react to things that are so popular and assume that they must be just “popular,” or populist. But, the fact is that Beethoven's 5th Symphony really is as great as people say it is, or think it is. And that's the same with the Messiah.

  • NG: Incidentally, I looked online for a number of performances each year; the closest I found was an estimate – not sure what it's based on – that since its premiere in 1742, Messiah has received some 750,000 performances!

  • AG: [laughter] Excellent! And why not! It's so inspiring to know that Handel wrote the piece down – and before he did, it didn't exist. And what he gave posterity is something that people can devote themselves to, and use their full capacities and full energies for, and give time for years and years after that, and... it's just literally, the gift that keeps on giving...

  • NG: As it will prove again this season... Now, Messiah is as much opera as oratorio – some would argue more so – with its mix of arias, accompanied and secco recitative, and of course its glorious choruses – which invite all those score-readers to the audience. As a conductor, what are the elements that make the work most compelling, and given your operatic experience [in Santa Fe, the Met, Vienna, etc.], do you approach the work in part with an operatic mindset, or more purely as piece of festive sacred music?

  • AG: I would say that in any piece that has a text, I take that as a starting point – as a launching pad. I first of all try to learn the text very well, and then come to the point where I hopefully have a one-to-one relationship with what is the meaning behind the words. That really tells you a lot, when you have a great composer who's so good at word-painting [that is, echoing the text's meaning with the music], such as Handel.

  • NG: My goodness, yes, it's almost a manual on word-painting for a budding composer.

  • AG: Indeed, and so it bears a lot of fruit to start with the text, because it inspired him to compose the music the way he did. It is more than anything a story that is told. It goes through different phases. Obviously, the first part is more of a narrative story and then it gets more and more spiritual and goes to a more exalted plane as the piece goes on. But, that's deliberate and that's the progression he wanted. It really is about a journey – both an actual journey and a spiritual journey. And I think that's the way to start dealing with the work.

  • NG: Now, of course, it's not just tempo and shading and spirit that a conductor must consider when conducting Messiah, it's the actual movements that will be performed; the work famously has no “authentic” or canonical edition, since Handel himself was constantly revising and replacing; plus there's the question of whether to perform the whole thing when doing a Christmas concert [since Parts 2 and 3 deal with the Passiontide and themes from the Book of Revelation). What was your approach in the 2004 concert in terms of the selection of the numbers?

  • AG: I don't remember exactly the decisions I made, but we did the first part, I think, complete. And then I made a couple of cuts in the second part and then significant cuts in the third part, although we did do the final music. For me, I didn't approach the creation of this version with the idea of shortening the work in order to make it not too long of concert, honestly – some people think it's a very long work, but that wasn't my concern. I actually was trying to create a line that made sense. That, in a sense, tightened up the action. There's not as much of a narrative line in the last part, so I think it's easier to cut without losing the thread of the story. I did spend a lot of time going through it and trying to figure out what would work in terms of musical continuity, as well as textual continuity. Essentially what we did was the first part complete, the second part slightly shortened and the third part significantly shortened.

  • NG: Yes, I think that that is not an uncommon approach for a Christmas performance.

  • AG: It's a great approach, actually. There are also decisions about di capo arias and repeats and things, so I tried to create something that made a good balance and presented the most cogent possible version, at least for me.

  • NG: It's interesting, given the fame of the work, that a conductor has such liberty in terms of how the work is presented – which isn't the case with every masterpiece.

  • AG: That's true, that's true.

  • NG: So, a couple more quick questions: first, do you know if you're planning any future performances of Messiah?

  • AG: Nothing is planned, but since the orchestra does it every year, and since I'm in a position to make decisions about who conducts it, I may snag it for myself one of these years [laughter].

  • NG: Great, and then perhaps we'll get a chance to hear your interpretation in recording?

  • AG: That would be a dream! Just to spend time with this piece is such a joy.

  • NG: And finally, Maestro, I wonder if you would you claim any particular number – an aria or chorus – as a favorite, or maybe a few of them; that if you were a professional singer you'd be standing in line to perform?

  • AG: Well, I get so moved just by the opening [tenor recitative] “Comfort ye, my people” – I think that's just so incredibly beautiful. And I've always enjoyed [the chorus] “And He shall purify,” and [the bass aria] “The trumpet shall sound” always stirs me somehow. Those are a few off the top of my head.

  • NG: Yes, those are all wonderful. Well, again I really appreciate your time and your insight, and hopefully in the future we can sometime expand the conversations to other topics, including what you're doing with the New York Philharmonic.

  • AG: I'd be happy to do that.

  • NG: Terrific. And Happy Holidays!

  • AG: Thank you – to you as well.

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