The American Handel Society’s biennial conference at Princeton University overflows this weekend with academic presentations and a three-concert festival open to the public. Coincidentally falling on the “Messiah” composer’s 328th birthday this Saturday, events run Thursday through Sunday, February 21 to 24, with a follow-up concert on Sunday, March 3.

Also known for his “Water Music,” “Music for the Royal Fireworks,” and dozens of Italian operas and English oratorios, The German-born George Frideric Handel was a court musician who came to England with the German prince who became King George I.

Of the musical events, billed as the American Handel Society Festival, Princeton’s Glee Club director and conference music organizer Gabriel Couch says, “The concerts are not academic events; they’re dramatic and color-laden.”

The English Concert, directed by Henry Bicket, opens the public music portion of the conference with an instrumental program on Thursday, February 21 at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus. On the program are concertos for violin and viola by Handel’s contemporaries. They will be performed by violinist Nadja Zwiener and violist Alfonso Leal del Ojo.

On Friday, February 22, at 7:30 p.m., Westminster Choir College’s Kantorei and Princeton University’s Chamber Choir join to present two works by Handel and one by Domenico Scarlatti. Crouch, director of Princeton’s choral program, conducts the Scarlatti and Handel’s “Dixit Dominus.”

Amanda Quist, director of both Westminster’s Chapel Choir, as well as Kantorei, conducts Handel’s “Let God Arise.” The event plays in Taplin Auditorium on the Princeton campus.

“This was a colleague-driven collaboration,” says Crouch. “I have no official presence at Westminster Choir College, but I visit a lot. I respect and admire the choir college.”

Explaining the programming for the Friday concert, Crouch says, “One of the interesting ways to shine light on a composer is to shine light on a contrasting contemporary. What makes Scarlatti’s ‘Stabat Mater’ worthwhile alongside Handel’s ‘Dixit Dominus’ is that it captures the Italian style. Handel wrote ‘Dixit Dominus’ as a young man working in Italy. You can feel that he was trying to impress established musicians. ‘Dixit Dominus’ is dazzlingly effective. Handel never worked his singers so hard again. It’s a real Everest.”

Members of the English Concert will coach instrumentalists for “Dominus Dixit,” Crouch says. His brother, Joseph Crouch, is principal cellist of the ensemble. “We decided to simulate a baroque orchestra. We’ll play at baroque pitch with A at 415 (Hertz frequency), a half tone lower than present day tuning. We’ll follow baroque style with restrained use of vibrato, and bowing techniques that mimic baroque phrasing and articulation.”

The third concert associated with the Handel Society’s Princeton meeting is a performance of the composer’s “Israel in Egypt,” Sunday, March 3, at 3 p.m., a week after the conference ends. The timing was selected to avoid practical problems that would have arisen if both “Israel in Egypt” and “Dixit Dominus” had been scheduled for the same weekend. “It’s difficult to maintain two big pieces at one time,” Crouch says. “Besides, if you schedule both in the same weekend, one detracts from the other.”

“‘Israel in Egypt’ is totally different from ‘Dixit Dominus, which is shorter and more liturgical,” Crouch says. “Basically, ‘Israel in Egypt’ is an opera on a biblical text. It shows all the hallmarks of a master of theater and drama. There is no significant spiritual message; it’s a pure act of storytelling.”

“The chorus is the star in ‘Israel in Egypt’ and portrays all the most dramatic events. The plagues, the killing of the first-born, the separation of the Red Sea are in the hands of the choir. You are in the middle of everything as a chorus member. You’re not a passenger; you’re a protagonist,” says Crouch.

The solos are cameos and assigned to two sopranos, a tenor, and a countertenor. Both of the soprano soloists are alumni of Princeton and of the Glee Club. They are Lily Arbisser and Maya Srinivasan Kherani, who was president of Glee Club as an undergraduate.

“The emphasis is on spectacle and effect in ‘Israel in Egypt.’ There are trumpets and trombones, and tympani in the orchestra. ‘Israel in Egypt’ is such a great work,” Crouch says, making a huge gesture with his hands. “It’s a natural choice. “

Crouch’s role in the Handel events is with performance. “The conference is Wendy’s baby,” he says, referring to Princeton University music professor Wendy Heller, who is in charge of local arrangements for the conference.

Heller has been organizing the details of the 2013 meeting over the past 18 months. She played a corresponding part when the Handel society met at Princeton for the first time in 2007. Conference coordinator is Nicholas Lockey, a sixth-year Princeton graduate student whose work Heller supervises. Assistance with daily needs comes from the Princeton University Conference Office.

Lockey, a harpsichordist, and John Burkhalter, the recorder player in a February 10 thematically connected concert that preceded the Handel meeting, present a lecture-demonstration as one of the scholarly papers at the Handel Society conference.

Talking about how the grand scheme for the Handel conference and music festival came about, Crouch says, “These things develop organically, through informal conversations with colleagues.” “One of my jobs is to do a big choral piece annually. ‘Israel in Egypt’ was on my list for this year.” He says that after talking to Heller and Princeton University Concerts organizer Marna Seltzer that they saw an opportunity to have a music festival during the conference.

Heller talks similarly of collegiality. “It worked out perfectly,” she says. “The English Concert was part of Marna’s series, and we set the conference date to coordinate.”

Heller estimates that of the two non-performance offerings open to the public during the conference, the more exciting event will be a panel discussion on the Metropolitan Opera’s “The Enchanted Island,” presented during the opera company’s 2011-’12 season. Set to a new libretto that combined elements from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest,” the Met show drew primarily on Handel’s music and included the compositions of other baroque composers.

Chaired by Heller, the panel discussion is titled “The Baroque Pasticcio in the 21st Century: The Metropolitan Opera’s ‘Enchanted Island (2012).’” It takes place on Saturday, February 23, at 4:10 p.m. in McCormick Hall.

Panelists include participants in various aspects of the Met’s production: Paul Cremo, dramaturg; countertenor and Princeton University graduate Anthony Roth Costanzo; musical advisor Ellen Rosand; and Bradley Brookshire, who played continuo. Yale Shakespeare scholar Lawrence Manley joins the panel.

With the nature of opera undergoing enormous change today, Heller expects spirited discussions of provocative 21st-century opera questions. How, for example, to use music of composers in this kind of entertainment? What should be the nature of this kind of operatic presentation?

On Friday, February 22, at 4:30 p.m., Reinhard Strohm of Oxford University delivers the keynote lecture for the conference, which is open to the public. Titled “Handel: Opera and Ritual,” it raises the question of using an anthropological approach to clarify Handel’s use of ritualistic components in his operas.

“Princeton is a great place to bring the Handel conference,” Heller says. The Firestone Library has strong holdings for Handel, including the recent acquisition of a copy of Handel’s 1737 opera “Berenice,” from an autograph manuscript by a contemporary scribe. The copy is the centerpiece of an exhibit of Handel materials on display at the library until Monday, March 4.

Though now connected with music in Princeton, Heller was born in Boston in 1955 and grew up there and in Providence, Rhode Island. Her father taught at MIT and Brown. Her mother was a librarian at Brown’s Science Library.

Heller trained as a singer in Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music and sang for 13 years as a cantorial soloist while doing graduate work. She describes her core academic interests as baroque music and opera.

Heller is the head of Princeton’s graduate program in Italian studies. “The program brings together people interested in literature, art, and politics. My interests are very interdisciplinary. I find it stimulating to work with other scholars,” she says, summing up her efforts to bring Handel’s music to Princeton.

American Handel Society Festival concerts: The English Concert, Thursday, February, 21, 8 p.m. Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall. $20-$30.

Princeton University Chamber Choir and Westminster Choir College’s Kantorei, Friday, February 22, 7:30 p.m. Taplin Auditorium, Fine Hall. $5 to $15.

Princeton University Glee Club, “Israel in Egypt,” Sunday, March 3, 3 p.m. Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall. $5-$15.

Firestone Library Handel exhibition, featuring the manuscript of the three-act opera “Berenice” (1737), through Monday, March 4, weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. and weekends from noon to 5 p.m. Free.

For more information visit music2.princeton.edu/AHS/ or contact Wendy Heller at 609-258-1906.

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