Come sing Messiah, Part Three: Conducting Messiah is like unleashing a juggernaut

Handel’s Messiah

National Arts Centre Orchestra conducted by Paul Goodwin

With Helene Guilmette, soprano; Diana Moore, alto; Colin Balzer, tenor; Alexander Dobson, bass-baritone

With the Cantata Singers and Seventeen Voyces, Michael Zaugg choral director

Dec. 18 and 19, 7 p.m.


Paul Goodwin is as accomplished a conductor of Handel’s music as there is. He has even been awarded the Handel Music Prize from the German city of Halle, Handel’s birthplace. The award presented in 2007 honoured Goodwin’s work on behalf of Handel’s music.

On other words, he knows his business. No unwarranted double dotting for him.

Goodwin, who began his musical career as an oboist with expertise in an early music sound, turned to conducting full time about 13 years ago.

As an expert on the Baroque sound, he has very firm opinions about what Messiah should sound like.

“It’s a dance,” he says firmly from his hotel room in Vienna, where he was working. This is his busy season. After leading a performance in the Austrian capital, he’s off to California, Ottawa and Philadelphia, finishing up on Christmas Eve when he rejoins his family in Britain. Duty to music calls strongly this time of year.

So be warned, Cantata Singers. Watch out, Seventeen Voyces. Take note, National Arts Centre Orchestra players and soloists. When Goodwin gets to town on Sunday to conduct an evening rehearsals, he will be all business. Of course, he has to be that way. He has basically six hours of rehearsal time to get everything shipshape for the public.

He enjoys being just dropped into situations with “all guns blazing and go straight for what I want. I’m confident in what I do and I just bring everyone along.” Goodwin says he moves quickly to set up basic building blocks.

“You never have to worry about making Messiah interesting, it’s always interesting. I’ve done it many times and every time you start it you just know you are starting the beginning of this organism. And depending on the choir, the orchestra, the soloists, it goes in a different direction.

“I don’t see so much difference between sacred and secular Handel. I like to approach Messiah as a dramatic piece and not so much as a spiritual piece. I’m talking musically and orally here, not textually. The text does what the text does. I try not to interfere with the text to let the audience take what they want from it.

“Why I said it’s always exciting to start this piece is because you are about to start this great juggernaut and see which way it goes. My job is husbandry. I oversee the to and fro of the energy of the piece so that overall I have a balanced whole.

“In baroque music, I like to play dominoes; you knock something over and it cascades from there.” The Messiah just carries the singer along, he says.

All baroque music is based on dance, Goodwin says, and he especially likes to bring that out. He spends a lot of time lightening the piece up through control of speed and space. “I’m sure I will find it in Ottawa,” he said emphatically. We’ll see.

The short rehearsal time before performance doesn’t faze Michael Zaugg, the music director of Cantata and the man who will lead the choir next week.

He’s used to marching to the baton.

Zaugg is Swiss, from near the city of Basel. He has had a different experience with Messiah. When he was growing up, the big Christmas piece was Bach’s Oratorio.

Zaugg, who also leads choirs in Edmonton and in Montreal where he lives, saw Messiah performed no more than two times.

His immersion in Messiah really began when his family moved to Canada about a decade ago to be closer to his wife’s parents.

“For me coming from Europe, Messiah is not as popular there. When I still lived in Switzerland from 18 to 32, there were two performances that I can recall. Nor is Messiah associated with Christmas there.”

“I don’t necessarily understand why Messiah gets all the attention. Messiah is a dramatic work. That is important to me. Not so much associating it with the story for Christmas.”

Messiah is but one of Handel’s oratorios. There are many other fine works by Handel that rival Messiah, Zaugg says. His particular favourite is the secular work Alexander’s Feast written in the middle of Handel’s ­career.

When he approaches a performance of Messiah, the key for Zaugg is making sure the story is well told.

“How do we engage the listener with the story? I’m after the drama, and the choir and soloists have to take on these functions.

“The other thing is starting at zero. Reading it again. Over time, my perspective shifts. The more you do, the deeper the understanding.”

Zaugg does like to approach the Baroque sound, but he feels that you cannot get all the way to reproducing the piece as it would have been played in 1741.

In performance, “once it’s running it sort of takes care of itself.” Especially when he working with experienced singers who have done the piece many times before.

For Kevin Reeves, music director of the Seventeen Voyces choir, conducting a Messiah can be a bit of an adventure. He has conducted it eight or nine times and sung it more than 60 times.

He says that he realizes that the performers and audience know the work incredibly well, “so I try to make it as fresh and exciting as possible.

“Secondly, I try not to screw up, because conducting Messiah is like playing a giant video game and is mentally and physically exhausting. There are millions of entries which come thick and fast, so how much should one convey, and how much should the performers be left to their own devices?

“There are so many movements with constantly changing mood and tempi, the brain can’t shut down for an instant; the accompanied recits are where novice conductors usually fall down — some are really tricky to conduct, all the while thinking about the tempo of the aria, which follows immediately — so the drama doesn’t falter. (Do I give the orchestra one or two preparatory beats here ... subdivided or not?).

“Thankfully, the audience doesn’t hear all the whirring gizmos in your head, they’re too busy enjoying the performance.”

And so say all of us. Now it’s off to a weekend of rehearsals and two performances on the big stage. I’ll be tweeting throughout. Follow me at@jpeterobb or look for the list #ottarts.

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© Michael Zaugg 2019