Handel’s Messiah — It’s All in the Details
Guest Blog — Curtis Daily — Bassist
I was pleasantly residing in Vancouver this past week in the home of Alex and Rosemary Waterhouse-Hayward, while playing the double bass in three performances of Handel’s Messiah with Pacific Baroque Orchestra. I always look forward to playing with Pacific Baroque Orchestra. I get to make great music with my wonderful colleagues and spend some time in Vancouver. I am very fortunate to also share inspired conversation, photography lessons, Alex’s fine cooking, and enjoy a lot of friendship while staying with Alex and Rosemary.
Alex and I have been conversing extensively about Messiah; a couple of times we went far into the night after performances, accompanied by delicious Argentine Malbec and snacks. When I mentioned to him that this is my thirtieth consecutive year of performing the work with baroque orchestras, he asked if I would write down some of my impressions about playing it so many times.
First the stats; I don’t keep track of the number of Messiahs I’ve played, but I have performed Messiah with orchestras in Portland Oregon, Seattle,Toronto, Victoria BC, and Vancouver BC. Most of them have been in Portland with the Portland Baroque Orchestra. I have played from four to seven Messiahs every year (seven again this year between the two PBOs) so 175 or so in total. My colleague, tympanist Mark Goodenberger, also counts dress rehearsals as performances, which they are for the most part, so if I add them, the total comes to about 220, give or take a few Hallelujahs. Each set requires around 15 hours of rehearsal time, so we can also add in around 600 hours of rehearsals.
One might think I would have Messiah completely memorized by now, but sadly I don’t. The bass lines are diverse and inventive, and there are so many notes that I find it impossible. I do have chunks of it in my memory, though. I haven’t counted the number of notes in the bass part, but there are easily several thousand, and at least 1000 shifts of my left hand, during the course of the ~2.5 hours.
Alex was curious about how I am able to stay interested after so many performances, and his curiosity is what prompted this essay. First, playing music is my career, therefore I work any time I can. I always find ways to be engaged, and Messiah makes Decembers a predictable month, income-wise. Second, Messiah is an amazing and epic work with so many compositional styles, moods, and fantastic bass lines, that I look forward every year to getting to play them again. A few examples; the bass line in “Why do the worlds rage?” is pure rock and roll. “All we like sheep” is R & B with a great one six two five cadence in octaves that comes out of nowhere in the middle of it, and would work just fine in a Buddy Guy song. “The people who walked in darkness” has a bass line that makes me think of a snake slithering along over rocky terrain. Third, and perhaps most important; I have a very short memory, which keeps everything fresh.
The bass instruments have the same role in baroque music as they do nowadays in popular music; anchor the low frequencies, maintain the rhythmic groove, and at times, propel the band In the choruses I often double the bass singers. In those places my mission is to offer subtle lyrical and foundational support to them, while in the final cadences of “Worthy is the lamb” and “Amen” I try to crank the dial up to 11.
Messiah is very much about the chorus, the soloists, and especially the person in front leading the proceedings. Often the leader is seated at a harpsichord, while sometimes the director is standing in front while conducting (as was the case this year). A couple of years ago in Portland, Paul Agnew directed while also singing the tenor arias, which was a first for me. At every performance I enjoyed looking at the surprised faces in the audience when we finished the synfonia, began “Comfort ye”, the first tenor recitative, as he slowly turned around to face the audience.
Because there is just so much music, there are an infinite number of opportunities for a director to put their own unique stamp on the work, and in my experience there have not been two performances that were alike, even from the same director. One of the things I look forward to very much every year with a different director is a special ‘something’ that I haven’t done before, and I have never been disappointed. Of course I have my personal preferences about tempi and interpretation, and those directors whose ideas fit with my preferences score most highly.
Our director this year, Ivars Taurins, is one of the most respected proponents of Messiah in the world; almost certainly the most prominent Messiah scholar in North America. He has directed it hundreds of times, has extensively researched it’s history, so obviously he knows the work inside out. It seems as though he channels Handel, and those who have been fortunate enough to attend the annual Tafemusik Baroque Orchestra Messiah Sing-a-Long at Massey Hall in Toronto, have seen him actually become Handel, right down to the over the top period clothing that he sewed entirely by hand. Everything that Ivars asks for is logical, musical, and well thought out. And, he is listening intently all the time so we are making sure to be at 100% attention. As he is a choral conductor, the choruses are especially satisfying to perform with him; always spot on for the right moods, tempi, and conveying the message of the text with complete clarity.
Coda: What was the one thing that made this Messiah different than any other I have played? There were actually a fair number of them, but the one that sticks in my mind was a very small thing in the first recitative for bass soloist, “Thus saith the Lord”, where Ivars begins it’s introductory dotted rhythm figure quickly and familiarly, with a forceful crescendo over the first measure into the second, where this year’s soloist Peter Harvey enters, but after he finishes the first sentence, Ivars directs the tempo of the almost identical dotted figure in the next measure much slower, setting the music up to emphasize the profundity of the next line “The Lord of hosts”. That was quite nice, but I may have played it that way before. The long pause before “and I will shake” was the special detail for me this year, and I had to force myself every time I played it not to go on auto-pilot and blast through it as so many other directors do. A small detail for sure, but a very sensible one that separates two sentences.
After so many performances, it’s all about the details.
Think along Messiah at the Chan