Handel’s “Messiah” Today: How Classical Music Compares With …

(MENAFN – The conversation)

No work of Western classical music is more closely associated with the Christmas season than German-born composer George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, premiered in 1742.

In recent years, audiences have been able to choose between performances modeled on those of the composer’s era, performances following the 19th century tradition of massive choirs and modern instruments, and even staged and choreographed interpretations of the work. When COVID-19 reduced live performance, online video presentations became a new medium.

This was following global protests over the murder of George Floyd and a global revitalization of Black Lives Matter. Among artists from different industries, black classical artists like baritone Andrew Adridge, in conversation with writer Michael Zarathus-Cook, called for classical music to solve systemic problems. He noted, “There is a problem with race in… arts organizations because there is a problem in Canada” and “avoiding conversations” will not help.

In a separate article, Zarathus-Cook wrote of how “we need to recognize that the protests we have seen are being spurred both by the urgent need for a radical assessment of the police force and of how they interact with [Black, Indigenous and people of colour], and the more subtle, culturally diffused everyday racism that is not triggered by a prematurely triggered trigger, but by words and social cues that remind racialized people in this country that they are irrevocably looking from the outside. “

Even before the global Black Lives Matter protests, a 2018 report prepared for the nonprofit Orchestras Canada by writer and arts consultant Soraya Peerbaye and violinist and ethnomusicologist Parmela Attariwala documents “systemic inequity and coloniality in Canadian orchestras ”, ranging from orchestral leadership and governance structures to their repertoire and working methods. Music scholars also grappled with the colonial legacy of classical music, including Handel’s investments in the slave trade.

Two interpretations of “Messiah”

In December 2020, Against the Grain Theater (AtG) in Toronto and Soundstreams produced pre-recorded films based on Handel’s Messiah which were released for free on YouTube. Both organizations have shown creative ingenuity to pivot quickly into the pandemic to produce digital content and provide jobs for artists in the early months of COVID-19 as the precariousness of artists’ livelihoods grew increasingly Claire.

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The way these two Canadian companies have chosen to respond to our contemporary context of anti-racist appeals during the performance of the Messiah provides an opportunity to have a conversation about how performers and audiences of Western classical music can s ” engage more fully in anti-colonial and anti-racist work.

To these questions we, two academic white settlers, bring our combined expertise in research into 18th century music and how independent opera companies in Canada are helping works of the past address contemporary issues. One of us (Nina) is involved in a project, “Exploring New Collaborative Models in Indigenous-led Opera in Canada. This collaboration is with Amplified Opera, a Toronto-based collective that inspires audiences to “embrace diverse and stimulating cultural experiences.”

Against the ‘Messiah / Complex’ of the Grain

Against the Grain Theater’s new interpretation of the Messiah, Messiah / Complex, hoped to support Indigenous and under-represented voices as part of their mandate to present familiar plays “in innovative ways and in unusual places.” They decided to present Handel’s orchestral music as originally written, which was to be performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, but they hired all the native, black or racialized solo singers, 12 in total.

Joel Ivany, Founder and Artistic Director of AtG, partnered with Reneltta Arluk, Director of Akpik Theater and Indigenous Arts at the Banff Center for Arts and Creativity to co-lead the production. Ivany said artists are encouraged to choose the setting and language of interpretation for their performances. The film features segments in Arabic, Dene, English, Inuktitut, Inuttitut, French and Southern Tutchone.

Articles from the New York Times, the BBC (endorsed by Margaret Atwood) and other major media have garnered more than 138,000 views in 44 countries. Arts journalist Brad Wheeler, writing in The Globe and Mail, described it as an “impressive lesson in reconciliation and inclusion”, while a New York Times headline on the history of the writer Dan Bilefsky declared that Handel’s work was “free from the bonds of history.”

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Soundstreams’ “Electric Messiah”

Another production based on Handel’s work, Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah has been billed as “a complete music video that reinvents Handel’s classic for today’s world” and “brings the past to life in a new way that reflects the city we live in “.

In keeping with Soundstreams’ mandate to showcase the work of living composers, the company has made minimal changes to the lyrics. Instead, the artists combine these lyrics with new music with influences from electronic dance music, pop and hip hop.

Electric Messiah was also well received, but reached a smaller and mostly local audience.

The colonial legacy of classical music

In the Peerbaye and Attariwala Orchestras Canada report, they call on Canadian orchestras “to create non-hierarchical environments in which artistic inquiries of Indigenous artists and artists of color can take place.” Engaging in “broader conversations about the experiences of Indigenous peoples, people of color and other equity-seeking communities” will enable orchestras to “cultivate equal and reciprocal relationships that meaningfully support artistic research. current ”.

These recommendations are echoed in Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies, a recent book by Stó: lō researcher and artist Dylan Robinson. He notes that the problem with the inclusion of more diverse artists and traditions, without changing existing working methods, is that even the “best integration intentions continue to strengthen and maintain the hierarchical dominance of artistic music by as a genre to which other music must conform. “

Fair collaborations with musicians from other traditions will involve working in new ways. Robinson also recommends highlighting the irreconcilability of different musical traditions. Allowing these differences to be heard could promote greater openness to the idea that reconciliation cannot be achieved through the “inclusion” of Aboriginal people in existing colonial models.

New interpretive frameworks

In Messiah / Complex, some artists expressed the Indigenous resurgence by singing in Indigenous languages ​​or challenging classical and Western colonial tropes. Baritone Nêhiyaw-Michif (Cris-Métis) Jonathon Adams described their performance as a “commentary on what it means to be Two-Spirit and Aboriginal in Alberta.” The performance juxtaposed shots of an oil refinery with the surrounding lands and waters of their homeland.

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Jonathon Adams sings “Thus Says the Lord” + “But Who Can Dwell” in “Messiah / Complex” at the Against the Grain Theater.

AtG has featured singers outside of the Western classical tradition, many of whom are also songwriters or songwriters. However, their composition skills were not showcased. AtG’s decision to ask the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to provide the backing tracks may suggest that, to combat the industry’s dominant whiteness, nothing in the sound of Western classical music needs change – that all it takes is to employ more indigenous, black and racialized artists. But this approach ignores criticisms of how the sounds and values ​​of classical music can “be a structural barrier to diversification,” as noted Chris Jenkins, violist, musicologist and associate dean at the Oberlin Conservatory.

Agency for singers and musicians

Soundstreams has given singers and musicians more agency over music. Adam Scime, composer and musical director of the 2020 edition of Electric Messiah, notes that they invite the musicians involved in each iteration to “bring their own voice to sculpt the project” and that they “give everyone a foothold. equal collaboration “.

As per Robinson’s recommendations, the individual artists of Electric Messiah maintained sovereignty over their segments. Meanwhile, viewers are encouraged to appreciate the differences between, for example, the turntable of SlowPitchSound, O Death, O Grave by Métis and French-Canadian composer Ian Cusson and Scime’s chorus “Hallelujah” reimagined as a dance party on the beach. In doing so, Soundstreams not only explored new and more equitable ways of working together, but the sonic results challenged the hegemony of the Western classical tradition.

Messiah / Complex is available to stream on demand until January 9, 2022. Soundstreams will release a new version of Electric Messiah in April 2022.

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