Program Notes for Stockton Symphony Reunions Series: Messiah

Saturday | December 4, 2021 | 7:00 pm
Atherton Auditorium

Stockton Symphony
Peter Jaffe, conductor

Liisa Dávila, soprano
Monica Danilov, mezzo-soprano
Daniel Ebbers, tenor
Ralph Cato, baritone

Stockton Chorale, Bruce Southard,director


George Frideric Handel
(1685–1759)

Messiah
Sinfony (Overture)
Tenor recitative: Comfort Ye
Tenor aria: Every Valley
Chorus: And the Glory of the Lord
Bass-baritone recitative: Thus Saith the Lord
Mezzo-soprano aria: But Who May Abide
Chorus: And He Shall Purify
Alto recitative: Behold a Virgin Shall Conceive
Alto aria: O Thou That Tellest
Chorus: O Thou That Tellest
Bass-baritone recitative: For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth
Bass-baritone aria: The People That Walked in Darkness
Chorus: For nto Us a Child Is Born

Intermission

Pifa (Pastoral Symphony)
Soprano recitative: There Were Shepherds
Chorus: Glory to God
Soprano aria: Rejoice Greatly
Mezzo-soprano recitative: Then Shall the Eyes of the Blind Be Opened
Mezzo-soprano, Soprano duetto: He Shall Feed His Flock
Chorus: His Yoke Is Easy
Bass-baritone recitative: Behold, I Tell You a Mystery
Bass-baritone aria: The Trumpet Shall Sound
Chorus: Amen Chorus: Hallelujah


Guest artist sponsors:
Joe and Rita Sublett


Program Notes by Jane Vial Jaffe

George Frideric Handel By Francis Kyte
George Frideric Handel, painting by Franics Kyte, 1742, National Portrait Gallery, London

Messiah
George Frideric Handel
Born in Halle, Germany, February 23, 1685; died in London, April 14, 1759

No one could have predicted that Messiah would become the most widely performed oratorio of all time with performances occurring every Christmas season across the English-speaking world. Yet circumstances converged that in hindsight offer some explanation of the phenomenon. At their center was a consummate composer who in 1741 had come to a financial dead end, but who had creativity to spare. Italian opera, which Handel had produced for over thirty years in London, could no longer draw the aristocratic crowds necessary to sustain the enterprise. In February of that year Handel gave his last Italian opera performance in London and proposed to do “nothing” the following season. That spring he received a masterful unsolicited libretto by wealthy, cultured country squire Charles Jennens, who had written the librettos for Saul, L’Allegro, and possibly Israel in Egypt. Jennens had based his libretto on passages from the 1611 Authorized King James Version of the Bible, supplemented with texts from the Book of Common Prayer. The librettist wrote to a friend on July 10, 1741:

Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall perswade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own benefit in Passion Week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.

Handel, whose usual practice was to compose during the summer months for the following season, began working at breakneck speed, setting the entire three-part oratorio between August 22 and September 14. Was the oratorio actually written on pure speculation, to be trotted out when a suitable occasion arose? The jury is still out on whether Handel intended Messiah for a London performance during Lent the following spring, or whether he wrote it with a performance in Dublin in mind.

Whatever the case, Handel was invited to spend the 1741–42 season in Ireland. Arriving in mid-November, he gave two series of six subscription concerts each at the new Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, then announced a charity matinee concert of his “new grand sacred Oratorio” for Monday April 12, 1742 (the actual performance took place April 13), to benefit “Prisoners in several Gaols,” a hospital, and an infirmary. Ladies were requested to “come without Hoops” and gentlemen to “come without their Swords” in order to squeeze in as many audience members as possible.

For his soloists Handel had to rely on several local singers previously unknown to him. One soloist, however, the London actress Mrs. Susannah Cibber, brought a certain notoriety with her on account of highly publicized divorce proceedings. She seems to have mesmerized the audience with the pathos of her singing, prompting the Reverand Delany to stand up and shout, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven.” Dubliners were ecstatic over Handel’s new oratorio. One critic wrote:

Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.

By contrast, London had mixed feelings about Messiah when it was finally produced there in the following Lenten season on March 23, 1743. Objections were raised about the appropriateness of a theater (Covent Garden) for the presentation of a religious work and of a “Company of Players” as “Ministers of God’s Word.” But the music itself was almost universally admired. Jennens, notoriously cantankerous, was one of the few to express reservations when he finally heard the work: “As to the Messiah, ’tis still in his power by retouching the weak parts to make it fit for a publick performance; & I have said a great deal to him on the Subject; but he is so lazy & so obstinate, that I much doubt the effect.” Oddly enough one of Jennens’s greatest objections was not to a texted section, but to Handel’s Overture or “Sinfony”—he may not have liked it simply because he was unaccustomed to the French-overture style—a majestic chordal opening in dotted rhythms followed by a fast but decisive fugue.

Old Music Hall Dublin Where Messiah Was First Performed Etching By Claude Byrne 1884
Old Music Hall, Dublin, where Messiah was first performed, etching by Claude Byrne, 1884

Even for the premiere in Dublin, Handel had to revise his original score to suit the singers at hand. This was to be his practice for many performances to come, notably for the 1750 Covent Garden performance when he rewrote several bass and soprano arias for the celebrated alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni. Modern performers thus have numerous viable versions from which to choose, including the autograph score of 1741, the Dublin 1742 version; Covent Garden versions in 1743, 1745, 1749, and 1750; the 1759 version from the Foundling Hospital where Handel had given charity benefit performances since 1749; and Handel’s own conducting score with emendations from many different performances.

The outstanding organization of Messiah belies the speed with which it was composed. Jennens, following opera tradition, had crafted three “acts,” the first setting out the major prophecies concerning the Messiah; the second dealing with Christ’s suffering, death, resurrection, and the spread of the Gospel; and the third reflecting on the promise of eternal life through Christ’s victory over sin. Jennens had also planned where recitatives, arias, and choruses would fall, but it was up to Handel to linger or hurry through sections, fashion a satisfying tonal structure, vary and balance the textures, and shape the drama. One of the reasons the work immediately appealed was its novel, subtle presentation of the story line—obliquely, without character roles and with few direct quotations. Audiences were also attracted by the pleasing balance between arias and choruses (where Israel in Egypt was perceived to be chorus-heavy) and the decreased instances of lengthy recitatives accompanied only by continuo. A perfectly legitimate response to time pressure was Handel’s recycling of previous materials, mostly Italian duets written in July 1741. One became the basis for the choruses “And He shall purify” and “His yoke is easy” and another for the chorus “For unto us a child is born.”

Despite his lightning-quick response to the text, Handel’s genius shows in countless details, making Messiah entirely worthy of its popularity. Aside from making each recitative-aria-chorus grouping cohere harmonically, Handel carefully chose his contrasts of key, texture, and character, whether in general mood or to bring out certain words. A wonderful contrast, for example, occurs with the sublime shift to the major mode and a soothing accompaniment to illustrate the serene mood of the tenor’s opening “Comfort ye” after the stern tone of the overture. It was no accident that Handel brought back the same major key at the opening of Part III for the lovely soprano aria “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

A set of startling juxtapositions comes with the blazing outbursts for the “refiner’s fire” in the aria “But who shall abide the day of his coming,” and a glorious change in texture creates a veritable shimmer for the sudden appearance of the heavenly host before the chorus’s jubilant “Glory to God.” The gentle pastoral nature of the purely instrumental Sinfonia pastorale is matched by that of the tender “He shall feed His flock.” All one need do is mention individual words—“exalted” (tenor aria “Ev’ry valley”), “shake” (bass accompanied recitative “Thus saith the Lord”), or “rejoice” (soprano aria “Rejoice greatly”)—and Messiah lovers everywhere can instantly bring to mind Handel’s apt musical depictions.

If some of his word treatments require serious breath control, performers agree that Handel wrote extremely idiomatically and rewardingly for the human voice. His seemingly effortless ability to make climaxes to occur comfortably as well as resonantly applies not only to solos but to choruses, which are universally acknowledged as some of the most skillful and beloved examples of the art. Their variety is remarkable, not only in shifting between fugal (imitative) interplay and large blocks of sound, but in incorporating myriad gradations between. He also uses a seemingly spare number of orchestral parts in endlessly different combinations. With his supreme dramatic sense, he saves the trumpets for the most celebratory choral movements such as the Hallelujah chorus and the “Amen” fugue—and naturally, Handel also features a solo trumpet in the aria “The trumpet shall sound.” Further, he invokes the timpani, traditionally paired with trumpets in ceremonial music, only to conclude Part II (Hallelujah chorus) and Part III (“Worthy”/“Blessing”/“Amen”).

Finally, we might address the question, “To stand or not to stand?” Tradition has it that King George II rose to his feet during the “Hallelujah” chorus at an early London performance, and since no one could remain seated while he stood, the audience also rose. It cannot be proven, however, that the king even attended one of these performances. It may be that he was warned away because of the initial religious/theatrical controversy surrounding the work. Then again, if he was in attendance, did he rise in awe or because of some physical discomfort? Whatever actually happened, audiences have risen at this point in the performance for centuries. Should the tradition continue? The choice is up to each listener, but one would hope that any thrill the experience might provide comes not out of duty but out of respect for Handel’s art.

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

Scored for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, chorus, 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, and strings


Guest Artists

Liisa Davila

Liisa Dávila, soprano

Liisa Dávila has gained recognition for her vocal clarity and dazzling coloratura, combined with a richness and depth allowing her to possess a highly desired level of versatility in her work. She was heard recently as the Dew Fairy in Stockton Opera’s delightful production of Hansel and Gretel in January of 2018 and shone as Rosina in Rossini’s Barber of Seville with Townsend Opera the previous fall. In May 2019 she returned to Townsend Opera for the role of Micaëla in Carmen. Her other operatic roles include Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Violetta in La traviata, Poppea in L’incoronazione di Poppea, Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow, and the title role in Massenet’s Cendrillon, the story of Cinderella.

Ms. Dávila’s concert work includes performances as a soprano soloist in traditional and contemporary works—Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mendelssohn’s “Christmas” Cantata (Vom Himmel hoch), Mozart’s C minor Mass and Vesperae solennes de confessore, Handel’s Messiah, Vivaldi’s Gloria, and Rutter’s Requiem among them—with reputed companies such as the Auburn Symphony, Rancho Cordova Civic Light Orchestra, Folsom Lake Symphony, Music in the Mountains Orchestra (Grass Valley), and the San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra. An advocate of new music, Ms. Dávila premiered the concert role of Shamiram in Ninos and Shamiram by French composer Michel Bosc. She is also an active member of the Synergy Chamber Players, performing innovative chamber concerts throughout the Central Valley.

Monica Danilov

Monica Danilov, mezzo-soprano

Monica Danilov received her bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from the Manhattan School of Music and master’s degree from the Conservatory of Music of Brooklyn College (CUNY) under the tutelage of Patricia McCaffrey. She was chosen to participate in the master class entitled ¨Music for the Masses¨ at the Metropolitan Opera Guild, with renowned conductor Kent Tritle. She has worked with a host of renowned conductors such as Jun Nakabayashi, Alan Gilbert, and Richard Barrett and with directors Mitch Sebastian and Dona Vaughn, among others. She sang in world premieres of Marjorie Merryman’s Beauty, Grief and Grandeur and the U.S. premiere of Nunes Garcia’s best-known Requiem. She has sung at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., the 92nd Street Y and Avery Fischer Hall in New York, the Cairo Opera House, and in Algeria, Ghana, Ecuador, and Colombia.

Ms. Danilov also has experience in musical theater as Maria in The Sound of Music, produced by Misi Producciones (performed forty-two times), and the role of Aldonza/Dulcinea in Man of La Mancha performed at the Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo in Bogota in 2016. She has sung important roles in zarzuela (Spanish opera with spoken dialogue on topical themes) and operas—Aurora la Beltrana in Doña Francisquita by Vives and Clarita in La del manojo de rosas by Sorozabal. Her opera credits include Paula in Florencia en el Amazonas by Daniel Catan, Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Mercedes in Carmen, Flora Bervoix in La traviata, La Ciesca in Gianni Schicchi, Maria in Maria de Buenos Aires, Valencienne in The Merry Widow, Kate Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, and Dido in Dido and Aeneas, among others.

Daniel Ebbers

Daniel Ebbers, tenor

Daniel Ebbersjoined the faculty of University of the Pacific in 2004. From 2015 to 2017, he served as interim dean of the Conservatory. He holds a bachelor’s degree in voice from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and his master’s degree from the University of Southern California.

Mr. Ebbers’s most recent solo appearance was with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Marin Alsop conducting Richard Einhorn’s acclaimed Voices of Light: The Passion of Joan of Arc. He has appeared with the Sacramento Opera in Verdi’s Otello, Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Other recent engagements include Count Almaviva in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Fenton in Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Mr. Ebbers has appeared in concert with the prestigious Music in the Vineyards Festival, the Stockton Chorale in Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and the Napa Valley Chorale singing Dvořák’s Mass in D. A Benjamin Britten expert, Mr. Ebbers recently appeared in the title role of Britten’s Saint Nicholas cantata and performed in the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings with the Bear Valley Music Festival and St John’s Chamber Music Series.

Other highlights include an acclaimed appearance as Sir Bedivere with baritone Thomas Hampson at the Washington National Cathedral and in Elinor Remick Warren’s The Legend of King Arthur. He also performed with Michael Tilson Thomas.

Mr. Ebbers has appeared in numerous Mozart operas and the Requiem and in many Verdi operas. He has also appeared as a principal artist with festivals across the U.S., appearing at major venues in Richard Einhorn’s oratorio Voices of Light-The Passion of Joan of Arc. He frequently performs with the Stockton Symphony.

Ralph Cato, Baritone

Ralph Cato, baritone

Ralph Cato has traveled the world extensively, telling stories in song using his warm, clarion baritone voice. Whether performing oratorio masterpieces, traditional opera characters, or as an integral part of an ensemble, he brings a humanity to each character he portrays and always delivers a memorable performance.

Early in his career Mr. Cato traveled extensively with Albert McNeil’s Jubilee Singers as a featured soloist. He sang his first oratorio work, Carmina Burana—a work he has since performed numerous times to critical acclaim—with the Estonia National Symphony and Chorus in Tallinn. In Cologne, Germany, he sang his first Mozart Vesperes solennes de confessore with the Cologne Philharmonic.

Conductors and directors have relied on Mr. Cato’s consistent delivery of compelling performances. For Redlands Opera, he has portrayed the title role in Gianni Schicchi, Sharpless (Madama Butterfly), Marcello (La bohème), Sonora (La fanciulla del West), Germont (La traviata), Escamillo (Carmen), and Tonio (Pagliacci). In Porgy and Bess he has played Peter for Opera Pacific, Sportin’ Life for Lisbon Opera, and Porgy/Jake for Chicago Sinfonetta’s Swiss tour. Mr. Cato was featured on tour in Europe, China, Canada, and the U.S. with the Irish dance show Riverdance and was part of the award-winning cast of Baz Luhrman’s production of Puccini’s La bohème at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. He has performed with Los Angeles Opera, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Long Beach Symphony, San Bernadino Symphony, Symphony Silicon Valley, Stockton Symphony, Los Angeles’s Southeast Symphony, Pacific Chorale, Chorale bel Canto, and Santa Barbara Choral Society. Mr. Cato teaches applied voice, performance practice, and diction for singers at the University of California, Riverside.

Stockton Chorale

Founded by Arthur J. Holton in 1952, the Stockton Chorale has been an integral part of the Central Valley’s musical life for over sixty years. The largest choral group between Sacramento and Fresno, the Chorale performs regularly with the Stockton Symphony and presents its own subscription series featuring a wide range of choral music styles. After Dr. Holton’s retirement, the Chorale’s rich history of noteworthy performances and overseas tours continued under Mark Clark, Joe Miller, Edward Cetto, and Magen Solomon. Dr. Bruce Southard was named artistic director and conductor in 2015.

Today, the Chorale continues to inspire joy and enrich our community through choral music. In June 2019, singers from the Stockton Chorale and Stockton Youth Chorale performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City. This marked the second time the Stockton Chorale performed at Carnegie Hall. Singers aged eight and above, of any experience level, are encouraged to find a home in one of the organization’s adult or youth choruses.

Dr. Bruce Southard

Dr. Bruce Southard is the director of the Stockton Chorale and of choral and vocal activities at San Joaquin Delta College. He has more than thirty years of experience working with choirs of all ages in California, Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota. Recently, Dr. Southard made his debut at Carnegie Hall in New York City conducting John Rutter’s Mass of the Children for Mid-America Productions.

Teaching is Dr. Southard’s passion, and he was named the Outstanding Teacher of the Year in the College of Arts and Sciences at Dickinson State University in 2013. As a conductor he has appeared with his choirs at state and regional conventions in the North Central region of the United States. He has served as guest conductor for several regional honor choirs in Montana and North Dakota, in addition to his active adjudication and clinic schedule. His applied voice students have been recognized at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions district level and in 2012 one of his students was a national finalist in the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) Young Artist Competition. Dr. Southard holds degrees in music education and choral conducting from University of the Pacific, Western Kentucky University, and North Dakota State University.