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A Little Religion

Raleigh Oratorio Society and Carolina Ballet combine forces on Handel's Messiah for a second year



[A Lady] being very musical, was invited by him [Handel] to a private Rehearsal of the Messiah, and being struck with the Exceeding dignity of expression in the Chorusses, and other parts of ye oratorio so inimitably sett to the sacred works, after the musick was over she asked him how it was possible for him who understood the English Language but imperfectly, to enter so fully into the sublime spirit of the Words. His answer is I think a lesson to all Composers, at least of Sacred Musick,

"Madam, I thank God I have a little religion."

--Charles Burney, music historian, 1776

Alfred Sturgis, conductor of the Raleigh Oratorio Society Chamber Choir, is excited about performing Handel's Messiah. One wonders how he can be. After listening to hundreds of versions of it, the overblown arrangements with a cast of thousands, the struggling amateur church choir, the Christmas sing-along free-for-alls, strains of it can even be heard on a motor-oil commercial, and you would think the man would be tired of it. But he's not.

Handel's Messiah, as Sturgis describes it, is a blessing and a curse. There is a sense of obligation that a choir director feels to take on the piece each Christmas. And though it is accessible, easily recognizable in name and sound, the Messiah is not an easy thing to perform. "The Messiah," he says wryly, "has seen a lot of abuse." What has enervated Sturgis is the collaboration between the Carolina Ballet and the Raleigh Oratorio Chamber Ensemble. For the second year, the Messiah will be performed in tandem, as oratorio and ballet. "People are so responsive to visual images," Sturgis says. "Heretofore what was only related aurally will be conveyed in images that will be etched in the minds of those who attend. The Messiah is now a feast for the senses."

A 22-member chamber choir, along with four new soloists, soprano Carla Le Fevre, alto Mary Gaile Greene, tenor John Daniecki and bass Charles Schneider, will sing the Watkins Shaw standard orchestration of Messiah. Most people are used to hearing the Mozart interpretation of this piece, but the smaller, pared down choir, accompanied by a chamber orchestra featuring members of the North Carolina Symphony, is closer to the original version of Handel's piece and is more stylistically correct.

When he met Robert Weiss, director of the Carolina Ballet, Sturgis was looking for a choreographer to work with on an idea he had for a dance set to a piece of music by 20th-century Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti. While discussing the Menotti collaboration, it came to light that Weiss had been looking for a choir director to help him develop a concept he had been meditating on for a long time: a ballet set to the music of Handel's Messiah. Sturgis was intrigued by Weiss' idea of a fully staged Messiah. He has come to see the resulting conjunction of music and dance as wonderful and unique. "The Messiah," he says, "needs that kind of freshness." He acknowledges that there have been some diehard musical snobs out there who were initially skeptical, but feels they have been won over. "It really works," Sturgis says, "because this music has a spirit that lends itself to dance." Robert Weiss concurs, saying that when he was a child hearing the Messiah for the first time, "the music just made me want to dance."

Weiss added yet another visual component to the production while he was in the process of choreographing the ballet. He knew that there already existed centuries of imagery that could help to express his vision. At the N.C. Museum of Art, he found them in 16th- and 17th-century paintings that depict the heralding of the birth, and the life and passion of Jesus. These images--the Annunciation, the betrayal with a kiss by Judas, the Last Supper--have become part of the ballet now, interspersed throughout as a series of tableaux vivant, a group of figures posing silently to represent a picture.

Robert Weiss began dancing when he was 8. He joined the New York City Ballet at 17 and remained there for 17 years. The Ballet was then under the direction of George Balanchine, considered to be the greatest choreographer of the 20th century. Balanchine believed classical dance to be a singular art form, rather than merely a fleshing out or illustrating of a musical work. "We must first realize that dancing is an absolutely independent art," he wrote, "not merely a secondary accompanying one. I believe that it is one of the great arts. Like music of the great musicians." Weiss refers to Balanchine as his most potent influence, as far as choreography goes. In interviewing Weiss I felt, as well, that Balanchine's influence on him went beyond the aesthetic, to the philosophical. Weiss speaks of the ennobling qualities of the classical art of dance, and he seems to see this particular piece of music, the Messiah, which tells the story of redemption through transcendence from the physical to the spiritual, as being an ideal platform on which to build a metaphor for this philosophy.

"It is the nature of the human soul," he says, "to look for the divine." The story of Jesus depicts man's endeavor to complete himself through passion, struggle and transcendence. And classical dance, with its ennobling aesthetic, is the perfect medium with which to tell that story. "When you dance well," Weiss says, "you are out of your body, you are transcending physical limitations, you spin like a top, you fly through the air. Dancing like that brings one close to perfection."

Under Weiss' direction, the Carolina Ballet appears to be emulating Balanchine's famous troupe in another way: the creation of a Christmas tradition of the performance of the Messiah ballet. Balanchine's own version of The Nutcracker became the standard after its premiere in 1954, and it went on to become a perennial Christmas classic.

The Messiah ballet begins with the choir on stage in a skeletal abstraction of a church, set in any time, wherever and whenever people gather to worship. Three windows in the church, evocative of a Christopher Wren chapel, represent a sacred space. Sun streams through the windows, calling up another metaphor, God as light, sun, son--and the choir, as parishioners, begins singing Part I of Messiah. The dancers slowly appear, Weiss says, "like the souls, the consciences, the aspirations, hopes and desires of the congregation." EndBlock

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