If you go

What: Central Oregon Mastersingers performs Handel’s “Messiah”

When: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St., Bend

Cost: $13-$23 plus fees

Contact: www.towertheatre.org or 541-317-0700

George Fridrich Handel’s “Messiah” oratorio has been performed somewhere in the world every year since 1750, according to Clyde Thompson, founder and director of the Central Oregon Mastersingers.

Thompson has had a hand in several “Messiah” performances himself, and this weekend, he’ll again conduct the Mastersingers, along with a 19-piece orchestra, in three performances of “Messiah” at the Tower Theatre in Bend.

It marks Thompson’s fourth occasion conducting a Mastersingers performance of “Messiah” — the others were 2007, 2008 and 2011 — and about the seventh of his career overall (he’s also sung it as a choir member).

Thompson retired from his music teaching post at Central Oregon Community College in 2004 to focus in part on composition. In fall 2005, he began leading the Mastersingers, now in their 11th season.

So it’s safe to say that Thompson is pretty familiar with the material. Nevertheless, he makes fresh discoveries each time he digs into the iconic work, which stands alongside Beethoven’s symphonies as being among the greatest in the classical music canon, he said.

“Having done it three times with the Mastersingers, when we started to work on it (this time), I realized, ‘I have to dig deeper here to get myself enthused about this.’ Of course, it didn’t take long,” he said, adding that a music scholar could spend a lifetime studying “Messiah.”

A literary scholar and Handel collaborator named Charles Jennens wrote the libretto to “Messiah” in July 1741.

“I hope (Handel) will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject,” Jennens wrote to a friend.

Handel began composing the music in late August 1741, completing it in just 24 days, Thompson said.

As a composer of Italian opera, he’d found success in places such as Naples, Rome and Florence prior to moving to London in 1712. By the early 1740s, his popularity was waning, along with that of Italian opera.

“He had kind of come to a dead end writing Italian oratorios and Italian operas for the English public. They were tired of him. He had written all these Italian operas, and when they fell out of fashion and he was losing his audience in England,” Thompson said. After that, “He pretty much invented the English oratorio.” With narrative elements, soloists, arias, choruses, instrumental sections and other hallmarks of opera, oratorios are similar in structure but are intended for performance in a concert setting, not a theatrical one.

Starting with “Esther” in 1732, Handel’s English oratorio afforded him an opportunity for a creative rebirth.

“Before turning to English oratorios, Handel was becoming discouraged by the growing apathy of his London audiences toward his Italian operas. He was even possibly contemplating returning to Germany, the country of his birth,” Thompson said.

“Part of what makes ‘Messiah’ unique among Handel’s oratorios is that it doesn’t have the dramatic action of his other oratorios, which duplicate the passion and high drama of operas,” Thompson said. “‘Messiah’ is much more reflective — ‘sublime’ was a word used from the very first performance on.”

In his program notes for the concert, Thompson includes a quote that ran in a Dublin newspaper after “Messiah” premiered there around Easter 1742. The paper — also fond of random capitalization — said, in part, “Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.”

Handel never returned to writing Italian opera. When he died in 1759, “All of England grieved,” according to “The Essential Canon of Classical Music.”

In a follow-up email, Thompson sent the following quote about Messiah’s final movement, which comes from the first 1760 biography on Handel, by John Mainwaring, published in 1760, one year after Handel’s death.

“In the three concluding choruses each surpasses the preceding, till in the winding up of the Amen, the ear is fill’d with such a glow of harmony, as leaves the mind in a kind of heavenly extasy.”

After a recent rehearsal, Thompson solicited from choir members their thoughts on revisiting “Messiah.” Mastersingers member Jeffrey White echoed Mainwaring’s transcendent thought.

“(T)he only word I have for the last page of the ‘Amen’ … is ‘celestial.’ It was other-worldly. It was breathtaking. I was stunned. I had never experienced any music like that before.”

He added, “‘This’ (I said to myself) “is what Handel created, and what he intended.’”

— Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com

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