Handel's 'Messiah' continues to be a staple of the holiday season

Thursday, December 3, 2015 - 3:53pm

One of the longstanding traditions of Ann Arbor’s music scene is the annual performance of George Frideric Handel’s renowned oratorio, “Messiah,” by the University Choral Union, a choir comprised of Ann Arborites and University students. Every year, Ann Arbor residents comes to Hill Auditorium to witness Handel’s beautiful musical rendition of Jesus Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension to Heaven. This year, the job of directing the annual production was given to Scott Hanoian, a conductor, church organist and University alum who now serves as the University Choral Union’s conductor, directed the annual production.

“It’s a piece that I love really deeply, and a work that I think really speaks to the Ann Arbor community every year,” Hanoian said. “What I think has made ‘Messiah’ stand the test of time and why people keep coming back to it … is that the piece is really a perfect marriage of text-slash-story and music, and the way Handel brought the text … to life through music in ways that reading the text doesn’t bring in the same way.”

Hanoian grew up as an organist and attended the University of Michigan where he majored in organ performance. During his undergraduate years, he developed an interest in conducting choirs and studied under Jerry Blackstone, whom he succeeded as University Choral Union conductor this year. Hanoian was eventually accepted into the graduate conducting program at the University, earning masters degrees in choral conducting and church music simultaneously.

“I really developed a passion for some of the great choral masterworks,” Hanoian said of his experience in graduate school. Among these works was Handel’s “Messiah.”

Hanoian found work as an organist in Washington, D.C. and, in 2007, became the conductor at Christ Church Grosse Pointe in Michigan before accepting the conductor position at the University.

“I applied and part of the job description is conducting the annual performance of Handel’s Messiah in Hill Auditorium,” Hanoian said. “That was one of the projects that drew to me to the position as the conductor of the choral union as a whole.”

While the story of “Messiah” is rife with Christian imagery, Hanoian stressed that the story can be appreciated by people of all faiths.

“You can take the raw emotion away from the person itself and apply that to your own faith and your own journey throughout your spirituality,” Hanoian said.

In Handel’s “Messiah,” the religious imagery is not the main selling point, but rather the sheer range of emotions explored throughout the work.

“Handel has created those emotions through music in ways that the human experience can’t express in any other way, and I think that’s one of the reasons the community supports it year after year, and that people keep coming to the piece year after year,” Hanoian said.

Those well versed in music theory will appreciate Handel’s innovative use of musical keys. The performance begins in E minor, a foreboding key that represents the uncertainty of the world before the birth of Christ. The triumphant climax of the performance  the Hallelujah chorus — is in D major.

“D major is the triumphant key,” Hanoian said. “In baroque music, when you arrive at D major, there’s usually trumpets and timpani involved, and when trumpets and timpani are involved, it’s usually something that’s heroic and majestic.”

The change in key throughout the performance mirrors the emotional journey that runs through the story.

“The way the piece evolves to arise in D major is always fun to see,” Hanoian said. “Most music starts and ends in the same key. This is not one of those pieces; it starts in E minor and ends in D major.”

Hanoian has inherited a choral group that is incredibly versatile, having performed with symphony orchestras from Detroit, Ann Arbor, Toledo and even San Francisco.

“One of the things that’s a unique challenge for me is that they’ve done Messiah’ for so many years and they’ve had different conductors throughout the years,” Hanoian said. “Every conductor brings their own … interpretation of what Handel wanted. I think what the unique challenge is for me, as my first year, is introducing new perspectives of the work Messiah’ to the Choral Union and seeing how they react to all of that, and to see how some things that have been ingrained in them over the years may or may not change from one year to the next.”

In addition to its adaptability, another strength of the University Choral Union is its intermingling of people of all ages who work together to create a great work of art.

“One of the intergenerational things that excels in (the group) is having someone who’s sung Messiah’ with someone for whom this may be a brand new piece,” Hanoian said.  “To have the experienced singers mentoring and leading the younger ones is always a wonderful thing.”