Anna Hamre, music director and conductor of the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale, celebrates a significant milestone this weekend: She will conduct the Fresno Philharmonic for the first time in a major work. The event is Handel’s Messiah, and Hamre is presenting a version that isn’t heard all that often by using an adaptation by Mozart.
I caught up with Hamre to talk about the Saturday and Sunday concerts at Shaghoian Hall, along with other news about an expanding chorus.
Q: I know you’re prepared your choirs many times to perform with the Fresno Philharmonic, but have you ever conducted the Fresno Philharmonic before?
A: Years ago I conducted a piece or two on holiday pops concerts, but this is the first time to conduct a major work with the Fresno Philharmonic.
Q: How many times you have conducted Messiah in your career?
A: While I have done segments (especially the Christmas portion, and, of course, the Hallelujah Chorus) many times, I have only conducted the whole thing maybe 3-4 times.
Q: Because it’s performed so often, does that make you want to find a “different angle,” so to speak?
A: Yes, indeed. For the past 30-40 years, the emphasis has been to try to recreate the “original” Messiah, to develop a performance that is closest to what Handel envisioned. However, less than 50 years after its premiere in Dublin, Mozart was adapting it, and I suspect that the Mozart version has had much broader play than Handel’s original did. This is a great opportunity to delve into that.
Q: Tell us a little about the history of the music.
A: The German-born G. F. Handel, making a living presenting his operas in England, saw a change in tastes of the audiences. Oratorios, structured similarly with acts but limited in staging and costumes, brought in larger crowds. The Messiah was composed in the unfathomable timespan of 24 days in 1741. That amazing fact, along with the initials SDG (signifying Soli Deo Gloria -- Glory only to God) placed at the end of the manuscript, have led many to decide that this work came about through divine inspiration. Handel presented the work many times.
In 1789 Baron Gottfried van Swieten led the efforts to have Mozart revisit the Messiah (along with other Handel pieces). There were a number of changes made, mostly reflecting changes in musical taste and developments in instrumental playing.
Q: Why do you think it is so popular?
A: Without a doubt, it is a fabulous piece of music. The emotional heft of its organization is matched by intellectual content. When combined with the traditions of holiday season performance, it becomes a transformational experience.
Q: When hearing a rendition of Messiah, is there one particular part of the music that you wait for to hear if it’s done correctly? What is something that annoys you about the way Messiah is conducted or done sometimes?
A: We all love and wait for the major solos and choruses, such as “The trumpet shall sound” and “Hallelujah.” Those are awesome! But my favorite part is the segment that it appears Mozart didn’t feel he could do much to “improve upon.” That would be Part II, which draws heavily on the long Germanic history of Passions (which depict the final days of Christ on earth, the story culminating in the crucifixion). For example, we see the tradition of representing the whipping of Christ with an angular motive and the healing of humanity with a smooth, diatonic line. The wandering sheep “go astray” with melodies that meander in all directions. I can think of no better examples of text-setting than what we find here.
I think, however, we must remember that both Handel and Mozart were, at their core, opera composers, and I think we must look at this work as a piece of musical theater. (Indeed, the Mozart version calls the instrumental opening an “Overture.”) I see the recitative “Thy rebuke has broken his heart” as one of the strongest soliloquies ever written, certainly as powerful as anything written by Bernstein or Sondheim. While my academic work was geared to search for historical accuracy, I think a narrow vision can miss the inherent power. The higher goal is to look for authenticity. There is no one definitive Messiah; even Handel made adjustments to the work during his lifetime. While we are exploring Mozart’s adaptations in this performance, my overriding goal is to tell the story in the most compelling way possible. I am hoping the innumerable little decisions (involving text, dotted rhythms, ornaments, instrumentation, bowings, etc.) serve that purpose in a way that would please both Handel and Mozart.
Q: Shifting topics, take this opportunity to tell people about Coro Solare, your newest ensemble.
A: Yes, we have added a third choir to FCC, Inc. We realize that there are people who like to sing great classical music, but who prefer daytime experiences. Of course, we anticipated that this would mostly involve seniors who don’t drive at night, including some of the former members of Master Chorale. Therefore, this fall we started an ensemble that 1) has no auditions, 2) has no requirement for reading music, 3) will rehearse and perform only during daylight hours, 4) will meet in a location that is convenient for all, including those with handicaps (e.g., those folks using walkers), and 5) will perform high-quality music with professional accompaniment.
FCC, Inc., is underwriting this effort until it can become self-supporting. I told the board we could make this work if we start with 20 singers. I am ecstatic that we have over twice that many and they sound terrific! I think the singers are as excited as I am. We hope to grow even more when we regroup in January.
A: The holiday concert will be very special with Heidi Blickenstaff returning home to Fresno to join us. I think the community will have a fun time at that one! This is a great opportunity for my choir because they can perform in a pops concert, a treat for many of our singers.
As to Coro Piccolo – thank you for asking! This is the chamber choir of FCC, Inc. and we love performing at St. Anne’s Chapel. It is an acoustical marvel, after all, the only venue in our area perfect for what choral musicians call “music for stone walls.” Last year we made a recording for KNXT, which we did for our own “sonic fulfillment.” This year we are giving live concerts Dec. 11 in addition to making another recording for them. Given the size of the hall, we are only selling 175 tickets to each hour-long performance. So the first concert will be at 2:30; we will have a quick audience change and do the second concert at 4. The bulk of the concert will be the Saint-Saëns Christmas Oratorio (with professional instrumental ensemble). We are delighted to offer this concert to the public. What absolutely glorious sounds are possible in that hall!
Q: Be completely honest here: By the time Christmas finally rolls around, are you ever a little tired of the music?
A: Hmmm. “Jingle Bells” once a year is enough. But to be completely honest, in regards to being able to explore great music, I would have to say “no.” The best example I can give you is the last time I conducted the Messiah. During the concert, in the middle of the Pastorale Symphony, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to change the phrasing of these four measures?” So my head is usually in the “what’s next?” stage, and that list only seems to get longer.
- 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
- Shaghoian Hall, 2770 E. International Ave.
- www.fresnophil.org, 559-261-0600.