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SFS Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin on Handel's Messiah

December 3, 2012

Ragnar Bohlin leads the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in Handel's Messiah December 13-15, 2012

Q1. Why is Messiah still so popular with singers and with audiences?

Ragnar Bohlin: Messiah is among Handel’s best works, and the quality of music is high from beginning to end. Charles Jennens’s compilation of biblical texts also plays a key role, as Handel was very inspired by it. In fact, after reading the libretto Handel composed Messiah in a very short time.

For singers, Messiah presents a wonderful variety of styles—it has grand, majestic movements mixed with very fast, challenging coloraturas. It’s playful, buoyant, and very well written for voices, which definitely plays a factor in its popularity among vocalists. Handel is also usually easier to sing than J.S. Bach, as Handel composed in a way that really suits the human voice. Bach’s vocal writing is often quite instrumental in nature, as if for him the important thing was the polyphony, which sometimes makes for some very challenging singing.

Q2. There are several ways of approaching Messiah:  from a historically informed point of view, with a full orchestra (the kind of big band version one might have encountered in the first part of the 20th century), or something in between those extremes.

What's your approach, and why do you adopt it?

RB: Handel made different versions of Messiah because his circumstances changed from performance to performance--for example he re-wrote arias when different soloists were available. I would argue, and I mentioned this to the chorus at our first Messiah rehearsal last week, that Handel was a very practical man. He was fully aware of the importance of pleasing the audience and of ticket revenue for his operas. I’m sure that if Handel were around today, he would not expect audiences to sit through a three-hour performance of the entire Messiah. Times have changed, and a two-hour concert is a much better timeframe for audiences today. In fact, these days it is more common than not for conductors to reduce the length and take their own approach to Messiah.

For me, it’s important that the piece works dramatically and theatrically, making sure that the storyline and the narrative make sense liturgically and theologically. It’s also important to make sure that the piece flows musically, and that the key changes and transitions are smooth. My approach is very much in line with recent research on performance styles during Handel’s time, particularly with regards to musical phrasing, shaping, and style. At the San Francisco Symphony, we are performing the piece with modern instruments—and I’m very happy with the sound of a modern orchestra for Baroque works such as Messiah, as long as the phrasing and stylistic shaping of the music are historically informed.

Q3. What is your favorite movement in Messiah?

RB: I think my favorite movement has to be the final Amen, for the polyphonic writing, and the incredible way Handel keeps the musical tension from the beginning to the end. Just before the final “Amen”s there is an amazing moment where we land on an unresolved chord, followed by a dramatic pause with the chord just hovering in the air. In a way, it anticipates the work of more modern composers, like Arvo Pärt, who often makes use of charged silences after unresolved chords.

Q4. What is the difference between conducting an orchestra and conducting a choral group? How do you balance that when you conduct the orchestra and chorus together?

RB: Rehearsing a chorus has many similarities to rehearsing an orchestra. You try to elicit your musical ideas, phrasing, tone color, line, nuances, articulation. Those are common factors. As a chorus director, it’s good if you understand the voice, technically—to be able to suggest things that can make a difference in the sound you get from the chorus.

When conducting an orchestra and chorus, there can be a difference in response to your beat, and I am conscious of adjusting the way I conduct the orchestra and the chorus when necessary. It’s obviously important to have a great collaboration when both are in play, but there are some moments when you focus more on the orchestra than the chorus, and vice versa. For example, in an aria with soloists, I’ll focus on the orchestra. Conversely, when the chorus is heavily featured, I’ll focus a bit more on the singers, particularly because so much of the orchestral writing in this genre follows the vocal line.

Q5. How does the programming and repertory at the SFS showcase the diverse abilities of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus? What do you expect from them in singing Messiah?

RB: The programming here at the SFS sees anywhere from 16 to 150 choristers singing a given production—quite a range! The Chorus sings everything from Baroque composers Schütz, Bach, and Handel, through high Romantics like Brahms and Verdi, to modern music such as Ligeti’s Requiem and Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. Stylistically, the singers have to be very diverse, agile, and adaptable, consciously striving to control density of sound, vibrato versus straight tone, and different ways of phrasing.

Messiah calls for Baroque phrasing, with control of vibrato and a leaner sound than we might hear in the music of Brahms and Verdi. A dance-like buoyancy in the approach to phrasing is very important in Handel, as well as producing clear and articulate coloraturas.