By George Basler
George Frideric Handel wasn’t thinking about Christmas — white, or otherwise — when he wrote Messiah 274 years ago. He began work on the oratorio in late August and saw it performed for the first time in Dublin for Easter in April 1742.
So the old boy might be surprised to come back and see how it’s become a staple during the Christmas season for choruses and orchestras across the United States and Great Britain.
In Broome County, Messiah has been a tradition since 1983 thanks to the vision of one man, the late Alan Crabb.
Crabb, as director of the Binghamton Downtown Singers, began conducting a chorus of community singers in a performance of almost the entire oratorio, not just the highlights. It was a daunting task that Crabb pulled off with great skill and determination until he passed away in 2012.
His widow, Marisa Crabb, has continued the tradition after taking over as artistic director of the Downtown Singers. She was on the podium again last Saturday night (Dec. 19) to conduct this year’s performance before a nearly full house at The Forum in downtown Binghamton.
What I don’t know about classical music could fill a very large book, so I’m probably the last person in the world to critique a classical concert. This is not so much a review as an appreciation of a tradition that Broome County is lucky to have.
Messiah has become an essential part of the Christmas season for me and my wife, Audrey. We find it overwhelmingly gorgeous and moving. The fact that Handel wrote the work in 23 days boggles the mind. (I wonder what he did in his spare time.)
And we’re not alone. “I’ve had people tell me their holiday doesn’t start until we’ve played the Messiah,” Crabb said.
Saturday’s performance, featuring a 134-person chorus, didn’t disappoint. At intermission I consulted with Paul Arnold, a former Tri Cities Opera singer and my expert for the night, who gave it a thumbs up as well. So I’m confident in saying the four soloists — Brenda Dawe, Kasey Stewart, Carlos Enrique Santelli and Timothy Lefebvre — did a fine job.
But with apologies to their efforts, the choral sections are — at least for me — the heart of the work. As Laurence Cummings, director of the London Handel Orchestra, has noted, “The chorus propels the work with great emotional impact and an uplifting message.”
I also eagerly await “The trumpet shall sound” near the end of the work. Frank Campos, who is principal trumpeter with the Binghamton Philharmonic, did a superb job.
In past years the Downtown Singers have sung the work with an ad hoc group of local instrumentalists, many of whom were affiliated with the Philharmonic. This year, for the first time, the chorus officially performed the work with the Binghamton Philharmonic as part of the orchestra’s 2015-2016 season.
The joint effort was the idea of Philharmonic officials who approached her two years ago and asked “how we’d feel about putting our audiences together,” Crabb said. She thought the idea was a great one. She’s pretty sure some people who had never heard the Downtown Singers were there Saturday night and, likewise, some people who had never attend a Philharmonic concert.
For me the only sour note was the ticket prices. Top price last year was $15 . This year, by contrast, tickets ranged from $20 to $45, a steep increase, at least at the upper end of the scale.
Crabb called the price increase “unfortunate,” but said it was necessary for several factors. One was the move back to The Forum after a few years at Binghamton High School. Another was the involvement of the Philharmonic. She pointed out that the $20 tickets were only $5 more than last year’s price. “Honestly I think the venue was worth a little extra money,” she said.
Still, if one purpose of the joint effort was to reach a broader audience, higher ticket prices would seem to work against this.
That being said, Saturday’s performance kept up a great tradition. Believe it or not, when Messiah first premiered, some critics raked Handel over the coals, contending his work was too exalted to be performed in a theater or concert hall.
Just goes to show you how dumb critics can be.
After hearing Messiah on Saturday, I am now officially in the Christmas spirit.