Handel’s “Messiah,” popularly known for its “Hallelujah!” chorus sung during the Christmas season, is set for an Easter-time performance by classical ensemble Ars Lyrica. Is this is a performance catered to the twice-a-year churchgoers or a history lesson?
“It’s a piece about the life of Jesus Christ and the significance,” Matthew Dirst, founder, artistic director and harpsichordist of Ars Lyrica Houston, said, “which is why it’s no surprise it’s associated with Easter and Christmas.”
The piece, an oratorio by George Frideric Handel, is divided into three parts. Part I includes Isaiah’s prophesies pre-Messiah and a scene from the Gospel. Part II delves deeply in the Passion and ends in the signature “Hallelujah” chorus. Part III deals with the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s ascension into heaven—hence the Easter nod.
“It’s very much in line with Handel’s other work…well in norms of late baroque,” Dirst said, “It’s not an outlier. But it is of course the best known by far, which makes it especially significant because audiences recognize the various movements.”
Dirst and Co. reconnected with the acclaimed Orpheus Chamber singers from Dallas and award winning conductor John Butt, from the Dunedin Consort, to perform the entirety of Handel’s “Messiah” in Houston before heading to Dallas the following evening.
“Everybody knows the piece,” Dirst said, “the choir has been rehearsing in Dallas for a few weeks since they’ve never done the entire piece. But I’ll wager there’s no performer who has never done Messiah.”
Dirst founded Ars Lyrica in 1998 due to a lack and need of “period instruments,” in Houston. Dirst has kept his “full-time job,” as a professor at UH’s Moores School of Music while still maintaining Ars Lyrica’s schedule and performances. It’s a tight ship. The artists will arrive in Houston roughly three days before for some “intense” practice, which is all the group needs, before performing.
For chamber choirs and historically grounded ensembles, it’s a no-brainer that Handel’s oratorios might stick out as a regular in their wheelhouse. But in this case Messiah there’s timeliness to all audiences. Most recognizable is the “Hallelujah” chorus, but the lyrics, which weave perfectly with the music, overall all are still accessible and riveting.
“It’s a joy to come back to,” Dirst said, “It’s quite virtuosic and the text to music is especially strong.”
And as with most large works there’s variety. The singers have a demanding and fulfilling “workout,” of solos, arias and choruses, each sounding and feeling different. For Dirst, there is no favorite, just whatever part he’s playing at the time. With music he can’t choose.
“Every movement is completely different,” Dirst said, “grandiose to tender. It’s really a different story from movement.”
April 2. 7:30. $37–59; $22, students. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St. 713-315-2400. arslyricahouston.org