2015-11-12 / Around Town

The Mechanics of 'Messiah'

By Betsy Sherman Walker

Ninety voices strong, the Rhode Island Civic Chorale and Orchestra, under the direction of Edward Markward, will bring Handel’s “Messiah” in its monumental entirety to Newport’s St. Joseph’s Church on Sunday, Nov. 29, at 3 p.m. The performance will be one of RICCO’s two productions this holiday season; the other will have been in Providence the evening before. Well over two hours in length from start to finish, Handel’s 1741 masterpiece has been called “one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.”

On Sunday, Nov. 15, at 2:30 p.m., Markward will be at Redwood Library for a preview of sorts, to discuss the dynamics—and the mechanics— of conducting “Messiah.” The work is an oratorio; in music lover’s parlance, a “large-scale musical work for orchestra and voices, typically a narrative on a religious theme.” An oratorio is performed with no costumes, no scenery, and no action. Without those embellishments, it’s all about the voices.

According to Alison Vareika of Newport, a member of the chorale since 2006, it is also a labor of love. Some plays and symphonies are considered harder to direct and perform than others, and when asked about "Messiah," Vareika (who sings alto) says it is a “way harder work than it seems.” An art collector and dealer with a practiced eye for the big-message history painting, she likens the effort to the image of ancient ocean-going ships, depicted on huge canvases gliding effortessly through the water—propelled by a batallion of unseen rowers below deck, hard at work. Most people, she said, don’t realize the intensely hard work of the “boat being rowed, down below.” This year’s performance will be her sixth.

She says, “I was always singing” and had been involved in local chorus groups, when, 10 years ago, she decided she wanted to spread her wings.

“So,” Vareika says in a typical Newport refrain, “I took the drive across the bridge.” And up Route 95 to Cranston, and into the directorial sphere of Edward Markward. “He is,” she adds, “the most wonderful conductor. Every rehearsal is like a voice lesson.”

On the RICCO website’s audition page, Markward describes the joy of singing. “You feel that in [his] rehearsals, and when you perform,” she adds. “It’s a pleasure to sing with Ed because he prepares you so well.”

Even the casual observer can see that Handel’s oratorio is big, complex; something akin to herding cats. “Even when it’s sung people don’t necessarily sing it the right way,” Vareika explains. The secret, she says, comes partially from familiarity, but more important, she feels, has a lot to do with Markward’s grasp of the kinetics of making the oratorio in its entirety seem like one sweeping, well-coordinated gesture. You have to get to know it first. And then you perfect it. “We’ve gotten into the details of it,” she says. “It’s the way you get the amazing performances: We know the minutiae.”

The chorale is settled into its "Messiah" comfort zone. Vareika is enthused about the performances at the end of the month. “This will be the best "Messiah" we’ve ever done,” she says. “And monumental,” she added, with a knowing chuckle.

She urges people to go hear Markward at Redwood on the 15th. “He’s a wonderful director,” she says, and thinks it will be fascinating to “listen to him speak about conducting, and then be able [on November 29] to watch him.”

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