Interview with Jeffrey Thomas about performing Messiah

We posed a few questions to ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas about the joys and challenges of his annual preparations and performances of Handel’s Messiah. Here are a few of his very interesting illuminations:

1. Given the opportunity to perform this annually, what do you look forward to each year?

In most cases, a conductor and musicians have only occasional opportunities to prepare and perform some of the greatest works of musical art. But in the case of an annual tradition—whether that be yearly presentations of Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor at our Summer Festivals, or annual holiday concerts of Handel’s Messiah—my colleagues and I know that the work we have done previously becomes the foundation for the next year’s new efforts to polish to an even brighter shine that handful of masterpieces that so many thousands, and millions worldwide, want to hear at least once a year. The fact that listeners, our audience members, wait in such eager anticipation of hearing this timeless music once again is an inspiration to us as performers to exceed their expectations year after year. And I have heard many say that this year especially their need to experience the transformative music of Messiah is at an all-time high.

2. What’s it like to perform this work in Grace Cathedral as opposed to a concert hall?

We are very fortunate to perform in some fantastic concert halls. Last night, for example, we performed Messiah in one of the greatest in the country, Jackson Hall in the Robert & Margrit Mondavi Center for the Arts at UC Davis. And next weekend we’ll be performing in another jewel among California concert halls, the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. Although Grace Cathedral was certainly not built to be a concert hall, it offers a very special dimension to ABS’s Messiah presentations. It is, simply put, a sacred and spiritual space, one that offers palpable serenity and awe-inspiring magnificence. Handel composed Messiah to be performed as a benefit for prisoners, a hospital, and an infirmary. And in later years, still under his direction, it was offered to benefit London’s largest orphanage. A space like Grace Cathedral reminds us of our interaction with community, and perhaps in that way we can connect to the original purpose of Handel’s work.

3. Why has Messiah stood the test of time?

It’s not easy to come up with the explanation, although we know that there are a handful of masterpieces that have survived splendidly over the centuries. In fact, some have truly thrived as much due to their transformations to other styles as to their original forms. Think about how often we hear the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the opening of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus in TV commercials. Those snippets are quoted because the music has gained a status of timelessness. So, back to the question: What has created that timelessness? Surely it has to do with the fact that those works have been performed without a hiatus since their premieres. What caused that? I believe it can be traced to the context of the work within its moment of creation. London needed a work such as Messiah to work out its societal difficulties, as a means to focus attention on benevolence and charity. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony came at a time when the structure and formats of music itself needed a new and perhaps brave trajectory. Beethoven propelled the philosophy of music in a new direction by composing three absolutely perfect movements—pristine and flawless in conception and realization—that honored the traditions of what had come before, then thrust the entirety of that toward a new cause represented by the fourth movement “Ode to Joy” finale. It is the synergy of a work perfectly fitting into the needs of its own time that ensures its immediate success and eventual recognition as a timeless historical achievement. And that is exactly the genesis of Messiah.

4. How has your performance of Messiah as a tenor soloist guided your conducting of the work and how has it changed over the years?

Any of the best singers understand that when a composer is guided by text the resulting music is a direct expression of that composer’s perception of the meaning of that text. This is how rhetoric fits in. The composer decides what words will be repeated, when a repetition takes place, why a word deserves a long note, or a run of fast notes (a melisma), and even why one pitch should be higher or lower according to the words at that point within the piece. With 99% certainty, we can decode the notes to understand what the composer was putting forth for us to understand, for us to feel during every single moment of his or her music. So, I think it is the perspective that I gained as a singer that has enabled me to consider these aspects of a composition so seriously and thoroughly. In the hands of a great composer such as Handel we can be guided to a poetic or philosophical or even spiritual experience. Perhaps that is one reason why we seek out great art in all of its forms: We want to have unmistakeable representations of our world presented to us in ways that transform our existence to something perhaps better or at least more fully illuminated.

© 2016, Jeffrey Thomas