Five Messiahs are better than one: Where to hear Handel in the Twin Cities

by Sheila Regan, Special to MPR
December 3, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — Where theatergoers have A Christmas Carol and ballet lovers have The Nutcracker, there is perhaps no holiday offering more loved by classical music buffs than Handel's Messiah, the three-part oratorio first performed in Dublin in 1742.

Originally conceived as an Easter offering, the work, which tells the story of Jesus Christ from the prophecies proclaiming the coming of the Messiah to his birth and finally death and resurrection, quickly became a Christmas favorite.

Every year there are several Twin Cities performances, and this year is no different. This month, concertgoers can experience the magic of Handel performed by the Minnesota Chorale; the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO); St. John's Oratorio Chorus; the Dakota Valley Symphony Chorus; and the combined choirs of Brooklyn United Methodist Church, Family of God Lutheran Church, and North Hennepin Community College.

German-born, George Frideric Handel had become a British citizen by the time he wrote Messiah. He had also given up writing operas in favor of oratorios. Like operas, oratorios involve soloists and choirs accompanied by orchestras; however, oratorios are typically religious in theme (versus operas, which are often secular) and are generally staged as concerts, without sets or costumes.

Even if you've never listened to Handel's Messiah, doubtless you will recognize some of the tunes, including the famous "Hallelujah" chorus as well as the seeds of what eventually became "Joy to the World," the tune of which is derived from several songs within the oratorio. "Comfort Ye, My People," for example, contains the melody of the refrain "and heaven and nature sing," while "Lift up your Heads" and "Glory to God" both contain the first four notes of the carol, which was adapted by Lowell Mason in 1839.

The oratorio also contains some gorgeous arias such as "Every Valley Shall be Exalted," for a tenor singer, and "The People that Walked in Darkness have Seen a Great Light," for bass. There are some exciting choral pieces as well, from "For Unto Us a Child is Born" to "And the Glory of the Lord" and "All we like Sheep have Gone Astray."

Ready to make plans for an oratorio outing? Here are five Minnesota Messiahs you can hear live. Additionally, you'll be able to hear Handel's complete masterpiece on Classical MPR at 8 p.m. on December 20.

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra: December 19-21, Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis ($12-$42)

Last year, when the musicians of the SPCO were locked out, they performed two concerts of Handel's Messiah with former SPCO music director Hugh Wolff and the Minnesota Chorale. This year, the orchestra is back in action, this time conducted by Jonathan Cohen with the SPCO Chorale, a group of singers assembled first for the SPCO's 50th anniversary in 2008 by the legendary Dale Warland. Unfortunately, two of the dates for this performance are already sold out, so act fast to get your tickets for the December 19 performance at the Basilica of St. Mary.

Minnesota Chorale: December 6, Roseville Lutheran Church; December 15, St. Olaf Church, Minneapolis (free will offerings)

The Minnesota Chorale offers two Messiah performances. The first, with the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, will take place at Roseville Lutheran Church. On December 15, the chorale will perform Handel's oratorio at St. Olaf Church — and will invite the audience to sing along.

St. John's Oratorio Chorus: December 14-15, St. John's Lutheran Church, Minneapolis (free)

St. John's Oratorio Chorus celebrates its 24th anniversary of Messiah performances this year, with Joyce Larson conducting.

Dakota Valley Symphony and Dakota Valley Symphony Chorus: December 8, Burnsville Performing Arts Center ($16)

The Dakota Valley Symphony and Symphony Chorus are performing Messiah twice on December 8 at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center. At 2 p.m., there will be a traditional performance, and at 7 p.m., you can either bring your own score or purchase one in the lobby to join the chorus for a sing-along.

Choirs of Brooklyn United Methodist Church, Family of God Lutheran Church, and North Hennepin Community College: December 8, Family of God Lutheran Church, Minneapolis ($15 for adults, free for children under 18)

A 100-voice chorus made up of three choirs performs together with a professional orchestra.

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based writer. She writes frequently for the Twin Cities Daily Planet and City Pages, among other publications.

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