'Too Hot to Handel': A Modern 'Messiah' While talking to friends, Marin Alsop realized that Handel's "Messiah" was in dire need of an update. She had already entertained the idea that "Messiah" would lend itself to a 20th-century remake, and once she got inspired about the idea, everything else began to fall into place.
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Handel's "Messiah" was part of the holiday season before Kris Kringle ever was. The oratorio uses Biblical passages to tell the story of Christ's birth, death and resurrection. Conductor Marin Alsop thought that this imposing composition could withstand some modern experimentation. So in 1992, she commissioned composers Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson to arrange a gospel and jazz version of the "Messiah." Here's a recording of the result, called "Two Hot to Handel." Get it? With Maestro Alsop conducting the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the New Hope Baptist Church's Majestic Praise Choir.


SIMON: Maestro Marin Alsop, who takes over as the director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra next year, joins us. Thanks very much for being back with us.

MARIN ALSOP: Great to be here.

SIMON: And what inspired you to commission this version?

ALSOP: I've always loved the "Messiah," but friends of mine who are non-musicians, they would always say, you know, I really like the part where we stand up, but it takes a really long time to get to that part.


ALSOP: And I realized that, oh, it needed updating in a way, and maybe a sort of hip-ifying.


ALSOP: Of course there's a tradition of that already, because Mozart re-worked the "Messiah" and added some instruments that weren't available to Handel. And I think that was part of its evolution, this idea of updating it for the time you live in. I mean, I'm not sure Handel envisioned what I had in mind, but the piece really lends itself to it so easily. So it was just a natural.

SIMON: Is it - I hope I'm not stretching for an analogy here, but is it rather like a Gothic cathedral? A Gothic cathedral is never quite done, because the design is you're always supposed to add, you know, be able to add something, depending on what transpires in life. And the "Messiah" maybe is a bit of music that is never quite done in that it is supposed to be opened to modern expression.

ALSOP: I think that's a great analogy. But perhaps my vision would be similar to adding neon signs in the Gothic cathedral. Do you know what I mean?

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: I mean, if one is a purist, I don't recommend this as an alternative to the original "Messiah." But the DNA of it is really Handel. And essentially, his "Messiah," the melodies, the harmonies, the structure, the lyrics are all the same, but the treatment is completely different.

SIMON: You have a favorite part you want to draw our attention to?


ALSOP: Handel, I apologize. But "All, We Like Sheep" is one of my favorite tunes, which we decided lent itself to kind of a shuffle.


SIMON: See, the idea of the music is to put in touch with the spiritual side of the season.

ALSOP: You know, I think it does that in a way that's very effective and very of our time. And that's what I love about the experience of "Too Hot to Handel" live. The audience is so engaged in what's happening, and they feel entitled and welcome to express themselves as part of the performance.

SIMON: Can you tell us a bit about Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson?

ALSOP: And then when I had this idea about the "Messiah," of updating it and trying to give it a new feel, I got both of them together. And the three of us were in a room. I mean, they've always thought I'm nuts, but they really were, you know, she's gone off the deep end now. And went through the whole piece and, you know, went through each number. And you know, well, what does this feel like? Could this be a jazz waltz, or maybe this - I mean, it was really fun to go through and try to envision what kind of treatment they'd lend themselves. And then the guys just split up the tunes, depending on what style we arrived at.

SIMON: "The People That Walk in Darkness," reminiscent maybe of Thelonious Monk?


ALSOP: This is Thomas Young singing, fabulous tenor. I've done the legitimate, you know, the original "Messiah" with him, even in the same week as I've done the gospel "Messiah." And the other two singers are formidable as well. Vivian Cherry is my mezzo and Lilias White is my soprano. And for these kind of artists that can sing stylistically in almost any direction, it's wonderful. And every time we do the piece, of course, it's a different experience because of all the improv involved and all the talent that they bring to the stage.

SIMON: They like doing both.

ALSOP: Yeah, absolutely.


SIMON: Anybody ever in the audience for this who hears someone scat singing and goes - what are they saying?


ALSOP: I haven't had that experience. But luckily I'm not close enough.

SIMON: Scat singing could be taken to be on a par with the Biblical speaking of tongues, couldn't it?

ALSOP: Sure. I mean, there's so many parallels, I think, to be drawn between we're trying to do with "Too Hot to Handel" and so many other experiences that one has in the church, in the cathedral. And one of the ideas, too, was to try to take the recitatives that are in the original "Messiah" and have them be more like call and responses. And with the Hammond organ - and this was Bob Christensen's addition, and he's also playing the Hammond organ along with Clifford Carter on fabulous gospel piano - so you can hear Lilias White in "Behold a Virgin." It's almost as though she's just stood up out of the congregation and started humming along and just singing about this concept she has.


SIMON: Now, are you able to conduct that piece this holiday season anywhere?

ALSOP: I'm doing it in Denver. We've done it for about the past five or six years, maybe even seven years. And the great thing about it now is that orchestras have picked it up all over America, even abroad, and are making it apart of their holiday tradition.

SIMON: How do you conduct this piece of music? I mean, do you give vent to the feeling of the music? Are conductors allowed to hop along?

ALSOP: Well, I haven't been arrested yet...


ALSOP: ...so I think it's okay, although it could be imminent. I have no idea. You know, it's not a piece where I use a baton and, you know, stand there in my...

SIMON: You don't use a baton?

ALSOP: Not for this one. You know, it's more about counting the band off and just participating. This is an over-the-top sort of stand up in your seats and really rock out in the audience kind of experience. It's one of the most fun things I do all year.


SIMON: I wonder, do you think there are people who, in a sense, get introduced to the "Messiah" like this and actually are driven to seek out something more like the original?

ALSOP: I can always dream...


SIMON: Or vice versa, maybe.

ALSOP: I can hope. I can hope.

SIMON: As long as they find yours, right?

ALSOP: You know, I - my feeling is that as long as this achieves what Handel's original intent was - you know, which was really a celebration of this season and this whole Messiah story - and as long as people come away with the same feeling they had at the original, which was that it was an uplifting, moving, emotional experience, I feel that the goal has been achieved.

SIMON: Yeah. Maestro, always wonderful to talk to you. Thanks so much.

ALSOP: Great to be here. Thanks.

SIMON: We can't end this conversation without hearing at least a little of the Hallelujah Chorus.

ALSOP: Oh, absolutely.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Have a hallelujah holiday. I'm Scott Simon.


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