Handel’s Messiah, the soaring Baroque oratorio, typically resurfaces in churches and concert halls around Christmas or Easter, tracing the birth, death and resurrection of Christ in an immaculate, two-hour ascent to the "Hallelujah Chorus."
Its popularity with audiences – starting with its Dublin premiere nearly 280 years ago – means that the singers and musicians who continue to study and play it also have a certain relationship with the work.
Back in 1992, conductor Marin Alsop commissioned arrangers Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson to make a contemporary version. Their rendition, called Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah, can be heard in Memphis this weekend, a passion project of Orpheum president Brett Batterson.
He first heard the piece while working in Detroit. When he relocated to Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, he brought the creative team with him. Too Hot to Handel is still performed annually at Christmas and on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in Detroit and Chicago respectively.
Batterson says the piece has been popular with diverse audiences.
“You know, in the performing arts, we are always looking for ways to reach a broader audience,” Batterson says. “Too Hot to Handel does that better than any piece that I’ve ever been associated with because people love it, people get excited about it, people stand up and cheer in the middle of the show.”
Most of the soloists and rhythm section at Saturday and Sunday’s performances have been playing the work for years. The choir of 99 voices consists of 34 singers from Detroit, 35 from Chicago and the final thirty from Memphis.
Chorusmaster Dr. Leo Davis, minister of worship at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, says that while the music is gospel-sounding, the piece still takes a special level of performer.
“(It needs) great readers who have some strong musical sensitivities,” Davis says.
Back in February, choir auditions gave Davis a chance to see what he had to work with locally. Putting an ensemble together between Christmas and Easter – when local church choirs are particularly active – was a challenge. But for singers such as Andre Hayes, who works at a laundromat by day, it was a chance to try out for a masterpiece with a twist.
“Music is my love,” Hayes says. “This is an opportunity for me to get a chance to work with greatness such as Leo Davis.”
Too Hot To Handel is that unusual work that makes both classical musicians and jazz musicians sweat. Detroit piano player Alvin Waddles says there are moments when improvisation completely takes over.
“I literally recall going into a full orchestra rehearsal and reading the whole thing, and it just gets to a point before the final 'Hallelujah Chorus' where it just says ‘piano solo,’ and there is a squiggly line,” Waddles says.
This is where Waddles begins to make it up for the next five minutes or so. He’ll cycle through some spirituals, some early jazz, then maybe pay homage to someone who recently passed away. At the Chicago show in January, he evoked Mary Tyler Moore and Fats Domino. Finally, there’s a key change. Then the oratorio rockets into the grand finale.
“To make that journey from birth to resurrection,” Waddles says, “is a shared cathartic experience for all of us.”
While Too Hot To Handel may not be the Handel’s Messiah you remember from the church pews, it’s definitely a Messiah to remember.
Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah is 7:30 Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Orpheum Theatre. Click here for tickets.