Georg Friedrich Handel’s “Messiah” was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1741, and premiered in London in 1743. Its first performance in the United States was not until 75 years later, on Christmas Day 1818, in Boston, but America has since more than made up for that lag.
The Christmas part of Handel’s masterwork on the birth and death of Jesus has become a fixture of the American holiday season, with choral performances in churches, concert halls, theaters, colleges and military academies including the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.
At Christmas, choral groups generally perform the first part of the oratorio, culminating in the famous Hallelujah chorus in praise of the Nativity. But that is the middle of the complete work. Performances can be based on one of several orchestrations of the oratorio, some of them on a grand scale scored for a large orchestra and a big chorus, including one by Mozart (the soprano solo “If God be for us, who can be against us” is as much Mozart as it is Handel). These days, however, the trend is to scale back the work to something closer to Handel’s Baroque original.
Between now and Dec. 25, Handel’s “Messiah” will be performed within a 50-mile radius of Washington almost every day. Here is a selection:
The Big 4
Washington National Cathedral: A Baroque period orchestra as Handel would have known it will accompany the National Cathedral Choir, conducted by Michael McCarthy, the cathedral’s director of music. Soloists include soprano Gillian Keith and tenor Rufus Miller. Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 8-9 at 4 p.m. Massachusetts Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue Northwest. Phone: 877/537-2228. Web: www.nationalcathedral.org
Kennedy Center Concert Hall: The National Symphony Orchestra and the University of Maryland Concert Choir, with German oratorio specialist Rudolf Beck, longtime conductor of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra Choir, conducting. Soloists include soprano Katherine Whyte and tenor Sunnyboy Vincent Dladla. Performances from Dec. 20, 8 p.m. at 2700 F St. NW. Phone: 800/444 1324. Web: www.kennedy-center.org/events/?event=NNMES
Strathmore Music Center: The National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorale, conductor Stan Engebretson, with tenor Matthew Smith, mezzo Magdalena Wor and other soloists. Dec. 8 and 22 at 8 p.m., Dec. 23 at 3 p.m. at 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Phone: 301/581-5100. Web: www.nationalphilharmonic.org/
Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Concert Artists of Baltimore Symphonic Chorale, with Edward Polochick conducting from the harpsichord, as Handel would have done. Soloists include Yulia van Doren, soprano. Tuesday and Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at 1212 Cathedral St., Baltimore. Phone: 410/783-8000. Web: www.bsomusic.org
Georgetown University: Angel Gil-Ordonez, director of the Georgetown University Orchestra, and Frederick Binkholder, director of the university’s Concern Choir, will lead a singalong of the choruses of part one — “And the Glory of the Lord,” etc. — in a performance open to the public. Reservations are required. Scores will be available for those who don’t bring their own. Tuesday at 4 p.m. at Gonda Theater, Georgetown University Avis Performing Arts Center in Northwest. Phone: 202/687 3838. Web: events.georgetown.edu/events/index.cfm?Action=View&CalendarID=251&EventID=96834
Kennedy Center: Conductor Barry Hemphill will lead members of the Opera House Orchestra, guest soloists and members of the audience in Handel’s great work. A popular attraction on the Kennedy Center’s holiday program since 1971, the singalong is free, but tickets are required and are available for distribution from 6 p.m. Dec. 23 (one ticket per person in line). Dec. 22 at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW. Phone: 800/444 1324. Web: www.kennedy-center.org/events/?event=MNHFM
Cosmic Symphony, Chesapeake Choral Arts: The Cosmic Symphony with Vladimir Lande conducting and the Chesapeake Choral Arts Society under the direction of Michael Santana and Leroy Pressley will perform Handel’s “Messiah” as a singalong, along with Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria” (1959). This is a double whammy, with two performances at two venues scheduled. First performance: Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. at Patuxent Presbyterian Church, 23415 Kingston Creek Road, California, Md. Phone: 240/561-9799. Web: www.cosmicmusic.org. Second performance: Dec. 9 at 3.30 p.m. at the College of Southern Maryland Fine Arts building, 8730 Mitchell Rd., La Plata, MD. Phone: 301/642-0594. Web: www.chesapeakechoral.com
Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes: J. Owen Burdick, organist and choir master and a noted authority on Handel’s oratorio, will conduct the Choir and Baroque Ensemble of the Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes. Sunday at 4 p.m., 1217 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Phone: 202/347 8161. Web: www.ascensionandsaintagnes.org