We are very proud to present, for the fifth consecutive year, The Downtown Messiah, which The Village Voice calls "one of the city's best-kept holiday traditions." Directed by Richard Barone (The Bongos), with arrangements by Peter Kiesewalter (The Angstones), and choral direction by Margaret Dorn (The Accidentals), The Downtown Messiah occupies a unique musical landscape, featuring folk, jazz, rock, gospel, blues, bluegrass and a capella. This year we are rejoined by many of the artists from past years, including The Accidentals, Richard Barone, Margaret Dorn, David Johansen, Peter Kiesewalter, Tobi Kiesewalter, Ann Marie Milazzo, Terre Roche, Jane Siberry, and Meg Griffin reading the recitative. We are also pleased to announce exciting additions to the cast, including Everett Bradley, Randy Brecker, Marshall Crenshaw, Mulebone U.K., Martha Redbone, Larry Salzman, Syd Straw (on Saturday night only) and Dar Williams (on Friday only).
As unusual as it gets, The Downtown Messiah remains true in spirit to the original, honoring its longevity and timelessness. For those of you unfamiliar with the history of Handel's great work, we offer the following short lesson.
Some Notes on Handel and the Messiah
George Frideric Handel was born February 23, 1685 in Halle, Germany. In 1711, Rinaldo, his first Italian opera for English audiences, played to full houses for 15 nights, launching Handel's career and giving him a place in society. In 1713, he was commanded by Queen Anne to write a Te Deum to celebrate the Treaty of Utrecht. The queen awarded Handel an annual stipend of 200 pounds, and he became the best paid composer of his day.
But later years were marked by financial and artistic reversals, and by 1737 he was bankrupt.
One of Handel's longstanding admirers was Charles Jennens, a wealthy sometimes poet. For years, Jennens had tried to interest Handel in setting his verses to music, and had once sent the composer a dramatization of the Biblical story of Saul and David. Handel had written an oratorio for the work, but it had not been successful. In November of 1741, Jennens sent Handel a new manuscript, which was also based on a Biblical story. This time, however, the text was the Bible - Jannens had taken passages from the Old and New Testaments and artfully strung them together to represent the story of Christ's birth, life and resurrection. Handel found himself responding to Jennens' work with powerful enthusiasm.
The composer had been asked by the Lord Lieutenant of Dublin to present a work for charity, and Handel decided that this new piece, which Jennens called Messiah, was appropriate. Handel began working on Messiah on August 22 1741. Twenty-three days later it was finished. Unique among Handel's oratories, Messiah is more religious than his other work; the text is purely scriptural and does not tell a story in the conventional sense. Rather, it is a meditation on Christ's life and ultimate triumph, and a celebration of redemption.
The premiere of Messiah became a major event. Dublin's most important newspaper asked ladies to refrain from wearing hoops in their dresses, and requested that "gentlemen come without their swords," so 100 additional people could squeeze into the Fishamble Street theater where the new work would be unveiled.
On April 13, 1742, with Handel at the harpsichord, Messiah was played for the public for the first time. Before it was finished, it moved its audience to tears. Reviewers, too, were elated, and the next performance drew such a large audience that the glass in the theater's windows was removed so the concert hall would not overheat. By the end of its first presentation, the proceeds from Messiah raised some 400 pounds for Dublin's hospitals and enabled 142 jailed people to pay their debts and leave debtors prison.
But when Messiah premiered in London, it suffered a different fate. Shocked and outraged that the "Bible" was being sung on stage by actors as entertainment, church leaders railed against it in sermons. And audiences who came seeking entertainment were disappointed that this new oratorio had no action and featured no flamboyant arias.
Nevertheless, Handel continued to offer Messiah for charity every year. Eventually, London audiences began to embrace it as well. According to legend, when King George III first heard the oratorio he could not restrain himself -- as the trumpets rang out in the Hallelujah chorus, the monarch rose to is feel. With their king standing, everyone in the audience dutifully followed suit, and a tradition was born: to this day audiences stand during the Hallelujah chorus.
Blind during his last years, Handel continued to compose, conduct and play the organ. On April 14, 1759, one week after attending a performance of the oratorio, the man who gave the world Messiah died - seventeen years, virtually to the day, after Messiah's premiered in Dublin.
Return and reexperience The Downtown Messiah, or come for the first time and see the show audiences have fallen in love with over the last four years.
Performances are Friday, December 13 and Saturday, December 14, with showtimes each night at 7:30 and 10:30 PM.
Also, this year The Downtwon Messiah has been asked to perform at the Wintergarden Theater down at Ground Zero. This will be a free concert on Tuesday, December 17.