’Tis the season for that Lenten classic

handelI have been criticized, sometimes with good cause, for being rather rough on the religion coverage in the Baltimore Sun, the local newspaper that lands in my front yard. It is true, however, that I know more churchgoers (and not just at my Orthodox parish) who are furious with the Sun than I do those who sing its praises. However, this seems to have more to do with the newspaper's strong-left tendencies on all cultural issues in American politics. In my case, there are many times when I get mad that the newspaper seems to have no consistent approach to covering this beat. Then there are times when I read what is published and I say to myself, "Wait! Do I really want this newspaper covering religion on a daily basis?"

But wait! Let me get back on track. The purpose of this post is to praise the Sun for having the courage to run the following material in a page-one feature story with this headline: "It's not Christmas without 'Messiah' -- Public demand makes Handel's work a music staple."

Choral music lovers, are you ready to be shocked?

"It really does signal the holiday season," said Monica Otal, artistic director of the Central Maryland Chorale, which has been offering a Messiah sing-along for 20 years. "I think you just have to think of it as a tradition. People love this work. They want to hear it at Christmastime."

In fact, the full, three-part, more-than-three-hour oratorio was originally written to be performed during Lent. Words selected from the Bible by Charles Jennens and music by Handel explore the birth, death and meaning of the life of Jesus Christ.

. . . Sometime in the 19th century, groups started using the work at Christmastime, and the association of the music and the season caught on.

. . . Some choirs tackle the entire work, including the Concert Artists of Baltimore Symphonic Chorale with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which for 25 years has performed Messiah in its entirety. The Maryland Chorus, based at the University of Maryland College Park, plans to do the full oratorio this weekend for its first Messiah performance in 10 years.

The more common approach is to perform the first part, which tells the Christmas story, and then a few selections from Part II and possibly Part III, ending with the popular "Hallelujah chorus," which officially is the end of the second part.

As a veteran choral musician, I almost fell out of my chair when I read this.

Why? It's accurate. Messiah is not a Christmas piece and it really doesn't end with a thundering herd of vocalists trampling the "Hallelujah chorus."

Oh, sorry about that burst of righteous anger. But I really do love hearing Messiah the way Handel wrote it, with a small orchestra and a nimble chorus of about 20-25 voices prepared to chase those light, dancing cadences while leaving all the notes intact. It never was meant to turn into a kind of Massive Tabernacle Choir civic holiday stampede.

But if you Google News "Messiah" and "Christmas classic" you will, I fear, find many newspapers writing that same old story about this work. However, search for "Messiah" and "Easter" and you will also find a brave few who get the facts right. Bravo! I especially liked an Ottawa Citizen headline that proclaims, "If you listen, you can hear Handel weeping."

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