This is for all of the 22-year-olds out there! You are at the peak of your creative energy, vision, and gusto! Go, follow your muse! And just in case you’re lacking inspiration, look to George Frederick Handel.
Handel Week Festival 2006, founded and directed by Dr. Dennis Northway, showcased one of Handel’s earliest works at the opening concert Saturday, Feb. 4 at Grace Episcopal Church. Now in its seventh season, this well-organized and invigorating series of performances has consistently shed light on rarely heard and often overlooked masterpieces of Handel, who as far as most people are concerned, wrote only one piece in his 45-year career: the “Hallelujah Chorus” from The Messiah, in 1741.
Although history has viewed Handel somewhat myopically, Northway has not. Long before Messiah, came the feisty oratorio Saul (1731), whose stirring overture opened the concert with organ soloist Thomas Wikman. This overture, which was delivered with unabashed, dance-like exuberance, is deserving of a place right up there with the time-worn “Suite” from Water Music. And long before Saul, in Handel’s 22nd year, came “Dixit Dominus,” a Latin setting of Psalm 110 for five-part chorus and orchestra.
The German-born Handel was climbing the ladder of success within Europe’s finest musical circles, generously supported by cardinals and nobility among the Catholic establishment in Italy. Not to be outdone by the Lutherans from the North, J.S. Bach among them, the Roman Church staunchly championed its musicians, having supported the likes of Palestrina and Josquin in the 16th century, and Monteverdi and Carissimi in the 17th.
“Dixit Dominus” (The Lord said to my Lord …) is one of only a handful of sacred Latin works in Handel’s oeuvre, and the lively rendering at this concert begs the question: Why isn’t this work better known? On my every hearing, this one included, I have been moved by the unmistakable effervescence of Handel’s cheery vocal imitation, deftly presented Saturday by the choir of 20 singers. In each of the eight movements, he maximizes the expressive capabilities of singers and instrumentalists. Saturday’s performers justly presented the panoply of moods in this psalm text with a full buffet of choral textures operating simultaneously in, not the typical four, but five voices.
Handel’s dramatic text painting at this young age already surpasses the English madrigalists, who were the proven masters of the technique. The choir’s interpretation of “he will heap high the corpses,” and “he will smash heads” was nearly as lucid as a scene on film. (Yes, these gruesome lines are from the Bible!)
Northway chose to amplify Handel’s string parts with oboes and bassoon, whose precise and lithe commentary effectively enhanced the work. Solo passages for sopranos Nicci Krebasch and Rosalind Lee and alto Amelia Fonti ranged from dark, engaging introspection to ebullient melismas, executed cleanly even in the extremes of their vocal ranges.
At 22, Handel was uninhibited enough to capture his imagination with music that placed extreme technical demands on the performers. Perhaps he was overly idealistic in this regard.
I suspect “Dixit Dominus” is so rarely performed because few grass-roots ensembles are willing to undertake the grueling reality of polishing so many layers of musical activity. Northway and his band were undaunted by this challenge. In fact, they will return to offer more unheard Handel: the opera Ezio, which promises yet another revelation of Handel’s dramatic flair, is set to close the festival this Sunday at 3 p.m. at Grace Episcopal Church.