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'Messiah': A Holiday Tradition Transcending Time

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This Christmas season, musicians around the country are continuing a centuries-old holiday tradition: performing George Frideric Handel's Baroque masterpiece, Messiah.

In Washington, D.C., the National Symphony Orchestra has finished its 58th annual performance of the work. This year, guest conductor Matthew Halls led the orchestra, which was accompanied by four soloists and the University of Maryland Concert Choir.

Though the performance marked Halls' debut with the NSO, he is not a newcomer to Messiah.

"I must say I've probably performed this work several hundred times as a singer, a keyboard player and now more recently as a conductor," Halls says.

Soprano soloist Kiera Duffy says she can't even remember how many times she's performed Messiah: "This is probably between my 10th and 15th ... I lost count," she says.

Still, Duffy says familiarity doesn't make performing the work any easier.

"Messiah is extremely difficult," she says. "I think a lot of people, because they're so used to hearing Messiah, think, 'Oh ... it's just another Messiah.' But actually, Messiah presents a lot of challenges for all the musicians involved — and certainly for the soloists and for me. There's a level of comfort that comes from doing it again and again. 'Rejoice' — that's the tour-de-force soprano aria in Messiah, and it's gotten easier and easier, so it's nice to finally enjoy singing that aria instead of being petrified."

Messiah's text is taken mostly from the Old Testament of the Bible and divided into three parts.

Says Halls: "Essentially, it's focusing on different aspects of the Messianic prophesy — that is, the birth of the Messiah, the events surrounding the passions and the rejection of the Messiah and, of course, the sounding of the trumpets on the Day of Judgment."

But, Halls adds, it's not just the religious story line that explains the enduring attraction of Messiah.

"We're a dance culture today, and a lot of our popular music is based on dance," Halls says. "And that has resonance with the baroque because a lot of the music for the baroque was dance-inspired. So there's this infectious, underlying rhythm behind most of the music in the Messiah, and I think that people really like that. They like the inevitability of the dance pulse and the way in which the composer manipulates the melody around that, and I think it's that sort of underlying rhythmic motor, which Baroque music has, that gives it its fizz."

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