A New "Messiah" 

The Richmond Symphony performs Mozart's reworking of Handel's "Messiah."

"Think of it as two geniuses working together," says Richmond Symphony Music Director Mark Russell Smith of Mozart's addition of flutes, clarinets and trombones to Handel's much smaller orchestra. Mozart also added his unique flourishes and embellishments. And unlike the original "Messiah," which Handel wrote for the public, Mozart's version was intended for exclusive audiences.

Handel's "Messiah" — by Mozart or in its original form — is one of the most popular concerts the symphony gives. That's because people need it, Smith says: "People look for spiritual experiences. People feel that. The combination of words and music in the Messiah is uniquely powerful."

As with all oratorios, the "Messiah" is divided into three parts. Here, they represent Christ's birth, death and resurrection. The orchestra, choir and vocal soloists take the listener through this story — in two hours and 15 minutes, rather than three hours, to accommodate our 21st-century attention spans.

Not to worry, "Messiah" isn't performed double time just to accomplish a shorter performance. Certain parts have been cut. This also helps the story focus on Christ's birth, of which the texts are often more familiar to listeners. "People love to hear stuff they know," Smith says. This typically includes the first section of "Messiah" plus the "Hallelujah Chorus."

While many Richmonders include the tradition of attending the "Messiah" in their Christmas plans, the piece was originally part of an entirely different holiday — Easter. In fact, its first performance was April 13, 1742, in Dublin. Although it's not clear when the transition from Easter to Christmas took place, Smith feels it has something to do with Christmas becoming such a dominant holiday.

Although Smith has performed this piece every year since he was 25, he says it's a difficult piece to do well. But he loves how pieces such as the "Messiah" and "The Nutcracker" have become part of American culture. "It's exciting the Richmond Symphony can be such an important part of people's holiday," Smith says. S

The Richmond Symphony and the Richmond Symphony Chorus present the "Messiah" Friday, Dec. 2, at Second Baptist Church and Monday, Dec. 5, at St. Michael's Catholic Church. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $10-$30. Call 788-1212.


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