NACO: Mozart and Messiah a mix made in musical heaven

Alexander Shelley. Photo: Fred Cattroll

Anyone who thinks the private house concert is a new invention should think again. In fact, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was doing them 250 years ago in Vienna.

One of his patrons, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a wealthy diplomat and amateur musician, regularly arranged private  performances of Baroque music in the homes of Viennese aristocrats and Mozart was tasked with organizing these events.

In 1789, von Swieten handed Mozart a copy of Handel’s Messiah and asked the composer  to orchestrate the oratorio for one of these soirees. In many ways this was a unique meeting of musical minds.

Mozart’s orchestration has a German text and has since been performed hundreds of times, especially in Germany, but never before at the National Arts Centre of Canada, says Alexander Shelley, who will direct the oratorio this week. This marks the Messiah’s return to Southam Hall after a brief hiatus. It’s also the first time Shelley has done it here.

“What I find fascinating about this version is first, the orchestra has never done it.

When I was talking with my colleagues about Messiah I asked, ‘OK you do Messiah every year, you do the Handel I assume. Have you ever done the Mozart version?’ They said, ‘No’.

“I said ‘Let’s do the Mozart and mix it up a little bit.”

Anybody who loves Handel’s original will be hearing music that is completely recognizable, he says.

“But we meet Mozart in one of the only times in his career as an interpreter and not as a composer. It is such a joy to find how he adds in his own details with such respect for the original.

“There are a few interesting things for people to know. Because it was set in a house they didn’t have an organ, so he uses woodwinds to fill out the harmonies that an organ would do. It’s … a realization of what Mozart would have played on the organ himself.”

The organ sound in Messiah is improvised, Shelley says.

“It is not written out by Handel. Each performance then is different by virtue of the fact that harpsichordist and organist play different figurations. So what we hear is Mozart’s imagination coming to life in the music.”

There are other additions including the use of trombones and an adjustment in The Trumpet Shall Sound in which Mozart added horns, and “gave them the tricky bits.”

Shelley says, that unlike today when our contemporary sensibility feels that re-arranging Handel could almost be sacrilegious, in the late 18th century it was all part of the game.

“For a good 180 years after Handel died, the practice of re-orchestrating things was normal. First, they didn’t play a lot of old music. It was always about new music. Audiences wanted to hear the latest from composers. People didn’t want to listen to Mozart’s old stuff they wanted to hear what he was coming up with next.”

But some, such as von Swieten, were interested in older music.

The idea of re-orchestration challenges a notion that classical music is rigid “just playing the dots on the page,” he says. “That’s something of the past 100 years. Before that classical musicians would have been more used to improvisation.”

That’s one main reason why Shelley is so enamoured of the Mozart version of The Messiah.

There are other reasons.

“Here we have two masters colliding. It’s difficult to comprehend what a memory Mozart must have had. In the few short years that he lived … if you were to sit down and copy the music he wrote, it would take almost as much time as his 35 years. It fills a 23-volume set of very thick books.

“At the same time he was listening to things and remembering. There wasn’t a lot of printed music. He would go to places and hear something and it would be like a text running in his head. It’s very difficult to imagine his brain.”

Evidence of Mozart’s memory shows up in other works. There are bits of Messiah that are echoed in his Requiem, for example, Shelley says.

“When you dealing with people like that, great artists, they have capabilities that are on outer extremes for humans.”

Every Christmas in some city somewhere some person is singing the Messiah, in one version or another, so how does Shelley make it his?

“That’s a question one is asked a lot, in general, about interpretation. I have generally the same answer.

“The first thing you do is study it very hard so you know all the intricacies, details and craft that go into putting it together. In the case of a work that has a narrative, particularly in a religious work, it’s important to put oneself inside the story of the text.

“With a religious work you are trying to feel the depth of wonderment and trying to have in the forefront of your mind, that the piece is also in service of something that for many people is fundamental to their whole philosophy of life.”

“We are all rational people and we question everything. So it’s easy to unpick religion if you want to. If you say there can be no proof, there is no evidence, therefore I don’t need evidence to dismiss it that’s a point of view which I get. If people want to be like that, that’s their choice.

“But I find personally it is very rewarding to try to get inside the dogma of a faith or philosophy and to try to really feel it.

“That’s a lot of what I do when I’m preparing for the Messiah.

“The biggest challenge of Messiah is an architectural one. Like in an opera, you need to say to yourself this is a story with a narrative. I try, once I have all the detail, to look at how the movements connect so we have a feeling of a very cohesive architecture which will be sub-consciously taken on board by an audience.

“Of course, I’m the conductor, I’m the guy who is tasked with setting the tempos, setting the balance and ultimately responsible. There is a lot of I in there, but I never feel that I am doing anything but be truthful to the intentions of the piece.

“I just spend all my time to be of service to the music.”

Shelley studied music at the Westminster School in London as a lad. He would sing in services four times a week in Westminster Abbey.

“I was music scholar. I got to perform on the cello, the piano and I sang in the choir, including some of this stuff.

“My mom is Catholic and Irish and my dad is Anglican and English. I took confirmation classes in both churches.”

He ended up being confirmed in the Anglican church. While he rebelled as a teenager, these days he goes to church sometimes.

“I got married in a church. My own relationship is probably complicated like everybody else. We live in a world right now where people say it’s either that or that. You can’t be nuanced.

“Religion is still something that 60 per cent of people on earth have in their lives. To simply write it off seems a bad thing to do. One has to try to understand and read and learn. … Musicians have very good cards to play here,” he says. You just need to listen to hear how how liturgy and text have brought out beautiful music, he added.

As an example of that, think about the opening of the Messiah, he says. In the instrumental introduction, the world is despairing and confused until near the end you can hear see some light. And finally a lone tenor stands and sings ‘Comfort Ye.’

NAC Orchestra conducted by Alexander Shelley
Soloists: Soprano Jessica Rivera, Mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, Tenor Isaiah Bell, Bass-baritone Tyler Duncan
Combined Ottawa Choruses directed by Laurence Ewashko
Where: Southam Hall
When: Dec. 22 at 7 p.m.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.