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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Handel’s Messiah and the Golden Door

Having been used in movies, television commercials and even video games, Handel’s Halleuljah chorus straddles the line between sacred and secular. (After watching “Die Hard,” can anyone think of the “Ode to Joy” as a cathedral hymn?) That particular line was crossed many times in the UMass Boston’s Choir and Chamber Singers year-end concert at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in South Boston this Sunday, December 9.

The sacred began with Guillaume Dufay’s a capella “Gloria,” which features some dazzling soprano flights above a solid, moving bassline. The secular soon followed with “The Isle of Hope,” a musical setting for the familiar five-line excerpt from Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” whose familiar words are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. “The Isle of Hope” rises above its minor-key beginning – “Give me your tired, your poor…,” ascends to the more urgent “Send these, the homeless,” and ends in a triumphant declaration of liberty: “I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” In addition to the stunning work of the nine-member Chamber Singers, “The Isle of Hope” featured pianist Terry Halco, cellist Hassan Saada, and Professor David Patterson with the occasional cowbell.

The “Fantasia on Christmas Carols” featured David Giessow, a resonant, melodious baritone. Like many carols, the words, if not the exact music, are familiar to us, and present the traditional cycle repeated in Christmas pageants the world over; from the act of Creation to the birth of Redemption. It ends with a familiar holiday greeting – “God bless the ruler of this house” – uniting the worldly and ethereal, allowing both the enter through the golden door of song.

The centerpiece of the performance, Handel’s “Messiah” is to choral music what “The Nutcracker” is to ballet: the traditional holiday rum cake. Because it’s traditional, it’s forsaken by many. But for others, the long history makes it an even more enjoyable delicacy. (I had my first slice of rum cake at the advanced age of twenty-eight, so ingrained was I.) However much a staple it might be, Conductor Jeffrey Rink treated it as if it were a new work, full of rich and tasty surprises, from the intricate four-handed piano prelude to the final rousing chorus. In addition to the Chamber Singers, the seventy-four member chorus was supported by Giessow; tenor Murray Kidd; Sara Bielanski, mezzo; and Brenna Wells, soprano.

Question: Could Handel have written the Messiah today? The attacks of September 11 led to an outpouring of religious sentiment, but by and large it has abated. “Religious rockers” such as Jessica Simpson or Creed get knocked for their messages. More pointed question: Could a modern-day Handel, writing today, have an overtly religious work accepted into the mainstream as “Messiah” has been?