Performing Arts: ‘Handeling’ the Holidays

by patrickmccoy

Soprano star Renée Fleming shares her love of holiday music and Handel’s Messiah.

This month’s editor’s pick includes soprano star Renée Fleming. (Photo by Andrew Eccles)

The great choral work, “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel is perhaps the most performed composition during the holiday season. Between maintaining a busy career as one of the world’s most acclaimed opera singers, soprano Renée Fleming shared with WL Performing Arts her love of holiday music, the  popularity of the Handel’s masterwork and a little known musical secret.

Washington Life: Often during the holiday season you share your gift of singing with the world, such as your celebrated 2005 concert at Mainz Cathedral in Germany. What are some of your favorite things to perform during this festive time of year?

Renée Fleming: I love a combination of things. There has been a fabulous gathering of classical sacred music over the years. The recording that I made works year round. The Mainz concert is much more Christmas-oriented. Carols are so fabulous. There is nothing better than a caroling party, or caroling in general. The idea of people singing together really appeals to me. It is an exciting and wonderful way to create a sense of community.

WL: You have sung for various holiday broadcasts including “Christmas in Washington,” which is certainly an institution. With such holiday programming becoming scarce due to the age of the internet, why do think it is important to still offer these types of television programs to the public?

RF: Generationally speaking, I think that is true. My daughter spends a lot of time on the computer, but I find that my generation watches television. When I grew up, there were a lot of variety shows that related to the arts, whether it was Sonny and Cher, Carol Burnett or Ed Sullivan.  There were just so many programs that you could go to hear music and performances.  My grandparents loved Lawrence Welk. We don’t really have that now. Those programs provide a wonderful respite from normal programming – it’s great to have something musical. PBS certainly does something every year. The holiday programs,I think, are such good news because they are cheerful, colorful and give you a chance to be completely nostalgic. There is no question that the holidays present an opportunity for a sentimental look back on life and a positive look forward.

WL: What was your first introduction to Handel’s Messiah?

RF: My parents were both high school vocal music teachers in Rochester, New York.  My mother was a terrific soprano who worked in many of the area churches as a soloist. So Messiah was really a part of every holiday season for us. There were parts of it that we did at Christmas and Easter. By the time I graduated from high school, I had the entire work memorized; all of the parts, choruses and solos. That’s how important it was in my childhood. It’s a piece that one never tires of because it is so fabulous.  Oddly, I have never sung a professional Messiah. It never came to be. There was one high profile one planned in London to re-create the original performance, but it did not come to fruition. Maybe someday!

Read the full interview in the December 2012 issue of Perfect Pitch, WL’s new performing arts column.

Performances of Handel’s Messiah in the city:

The historic Metropolitan A. M. E. Church has had a long tradition of presenting “Messiah” as a gift to the community. WL Performaning Arts took in the December 2 performance, which was one of the earliest presentations of the work in the city this season. It was beautiful to see, yet again, how this annual presentation united people from various backgrounds in the spirit of the holiday season. An interesting facet of this presentation was the participation of emerging performing artists as guest soloists.  Dr. Lester Green conducted the choir and orchestra with sopranos Michele Gutrick, Alia Waheed-Ky, countertenor Curtis Adamson, tenors Keith Byron Craig, Wayne Jennings, Anthony Brown and baritones Louis Davis and Vashawn Savoy McIlwain. Washington Week‘s Gwen Ifill, who served as the evening’s host, said in her opening remarks that “every time is like hearing Messiah for the first time.” On the other side of town around the same time, Dr. Owen Burdick led the Choir and Baroque Ensemble of Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes in a special performance to raise funds for the church’s pipe organ, which was damaged by the 2011 earthquake.

Still time to hear Messiah:

Cathedral Choir of Men, Boys and Girls with Baroque Orchestra
Fri. Dec 7, 7:30 p.m.,
Sat.Dec. 8, 4 p.m.
Sun.Dec. 9, 5 p.m.
Washington National Cathedral
3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW
(202) 537-6200

Attending a musical performance in the glories of the vastness of the cathedral is something that everyone should experience at least once. Canon Michael McCarthy will lead the combined choirs in the  performance. Guest soloists are soprano Gillian Keith, mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer, tenor Rufus Müller and bass Nathan Berg. The performance features favorites from all three sections of the work, including the famous “Hallelujah Chorus.” The majesty of the sacred space, coupled with the resonant acoustic, create a formula for spectacular music making.

National Philharmonic Chorale
Sat., Dec. 8, 8 p.m.
Sat., Dec. 22, 8 p.m.
Sun. Dec. 23, 3 p.m.
The Music Center at Strathmore
5301 Tuckerman Lane North Bethesda, MD
(301) 581-5100
$28-84, Children 7-17 FREE

Music director Stan Engebretson will lead the National Philharmonic Chorale in several performances of the work. Guest soloists include soprano Danielle Talamantes, mezzo-sopran0 Magdalena Wór, tenor Matthew Smith and bass Kevin Deas. Celebrate the holidays with the entire family as the nearly 200 voice chorus usher in the holiday season with orchestra. Engebretson is known for his contributions to Washington musical life, which include teaching at George Mason University and serving as Director of Music at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Handel’s Messiah-The Senior Choir
Sun., Dec. 8, 5 p.m.
Shiloh Baptist Church
1500 Ninth St. NW
(202) 232-4288

Whether it is the dawning of dramatic costumes or the projection of magnificent images on the walls of the sanctuary, attendees can expect a unique experience at Shiloh’s annual presentation. Dr. Thomas Tyler Dixon has again assembled a talented arsenal of vocal and instrumental talents, which includes soprano Detra Battle, mezzo-soprano Dawn Robinson, tenor Rafealito Ross and baritone Garrett Jackson. Maintaining the formality of the traditional classical music, yet incorporating the spontaneity of the African American worship experience, it is a performance of “Messiah” that is certainly not to be missed.

Petersburg, Va. native Patrick D. McCoy received a B.M. in vocal performance from Virginia State University and an M.M. in church music from the Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va. He has contributed arts and culture pieces to CBS Washington, The Afro-American Newspaper and the newly published book, “In Spite of the Drawbacks” (Association of Black Women Historians), which includes his chapter on legendary soprano Leontyne Price. McCoy has interviewed some of the most acclaimed artists of our time, including Renée Fleming, Denyce Graves, Norman Scribner, Julian Wachner, Christine Brewer and Lawrence Brownlee. Listen to these interviews and others at Blog Talk Radio. McCoy may be reached via email at and on Twitter @PatrickDMcCoy.

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