Music director Andrew Megill has conducted three Masterwork Orchestra and Chorus seasons of Handel’s "Messiah" since his appointment in January, 2000. Each year he has led a different version of the work. Megill’s flexibility should be a comfort to the closet Scrooges who cringe from hearing, once again, what they consider to be a very tired piece of music.
Megill directs still another Masterwork "Messiah" Sunday, December 14 at 3 p.m. in New Brunswick’s State Theater. Repeat performances are Friday, December 19, in Morristown’s Community Theatre, and Saturday, December 20, in New York’s Carnegie Hall. Soloists with the 120-member Masterwork Chorus are soprano Laura Heimes, mezzo-soprano Alexandra Montano, tenor David Vanderwal, and baritone Sumner Thompson. The Masterwork "Messiah" has become a holiday tradition. Its first performance took place in 1967 under David Randolph, who directed the group until 1992.
"My Messiahs differ from year to year," Megill says in an early morning telephone interview tucked into his cramped schedule. "One of the ways to keep `Messiah’ fresh is to look at the ways Handel performed the piece. Until the last decade only two or three versions of `Messiah’ were available, and they were relatively similar. Over the last 10 years, musicology has dug up more versions. One of the ways they differ is in using different kinds of voices. For instance, the soloist in a particular aria might be a soprano or it might be a castrato. This year, in `How Beautiful are the Feet,’ in Part Two of `Messiah,’ we do a duet for soprano and alto that leads into a chorus. In the standard versions there’s a soprano aria and no chorus."
"There’s no definitive `Messiah,’" Megill says, "probably because the piece was very popular from the beginning, and Handel performed it many times. His performances reflected his personality.
"Handel was a theater musician, used to fitting the music to the performers available. If someone was sick, he’d have to make a change. If there was no good violinist available, he’d rewrite the part for oboe. And then there was the baroque esthetic, which considered the score an outline, and expected performers to ornament what they saw on the page."
"Today we know Handel through this oratorio, `Messiah,’ though he was best known for his operas during his lifetime" says Megill." In fact, `Messiah’s’ score is divided into scenes and acts. By definition, an oratorio is a sacred story, dramatic in nature, but not staged. By tradition, oratorios were most often presented in churches, not theaters. When opera houses were closed, during Lent, oratorios substituted for opera. In Handel’s time `Messiah’ was performed during Lent, not at Christmas."
"Messiah," Megill says, "was unique among Handel’s oratorios because the soloists don’t play characters. It’s not so much a story as reflections on a story already known. Handel couldn’t help writing dramatically. He had a theatrical mindset. He meant `Messiah’ to be shocking and exciting and dramatic."
The 120-member Masterwork Chorus is larger than the forces Handel used. "The size of the chorus in Handel’s time varied, but it was never large," Megill says. Knowing that when "Messiah" premiered in Dublin, the chorus consisted of choristers from Dublin’s two largest Anglican churches, I ask Megill to explain the apparent contradiction.
"Some people sang in both churches and there were about 30 singers in the premiere," he says. "Handel used a small chorus for his oratorios. However, in his `Royal Fireworks Music’ he used 150 singers. While he was alive, performances of some of his works used 500 singers; but they were not conducted by Handel."
A modest man, Megill is reluctant to claim an impact on the Masterwork ensemble during the almost four years of his tenure. Tentatively, he says, "There’s an increased clarity; people have commented." Then he goes on to provide details illustrating that his leadership has had a significant effect.
"The biggest difference is greater rhythmic precision," he says. "That’s where a lot of clarity comes from. There’s also more energy, and more sense of urgency and passion." To enhance clarity Megill looks for connections between music and text. He takes his cue from what he calls "articulation," or the way words are spoken.
The mutual support of words and music is a hallmark of Megill’s conducting (U.S. 1, December 13, 2000). "The art that we’re working in," he says, "is the art of expressive sound, of carrying meaning to an audience. In addition to pitch and loudness, singers work with the attack and release of words. The sounds of words are expressive. This is the major difference between poetry and prose. We extend that difference to singing."
Megill, 38, was born in Denver, and "grew up in a lot of places." His father, a physician who specialized in tropical medicine, was a medical missionary in Sierra Leone when Andrew was a child. The family moved to Bangkok, Thailand, where father Megill went as a member of the Peace Corps. When Andrew was 12, they settled in northwest New Mexico, where Dr. Megill set up a dozen clinics in the large, sparsely populated Four Corners area, and made daily rounds by plane, acting as his own pilot. Dr. Megill died in the early 1990s in an airplane accident.
Andrew’s musician mother was a church organist and accompanist of church choirs when he was a child. Andrew remembers her inviting her three sons to join her in singing quartets around the piano. "She’s still a church organist," Megill says, "now mostly retired." Andrew’s older brother, Kevin, is a professor of computer science, and his younger brother, David, is a non-denominational pastor.
"I’ve known most of my life that music was where I wanted to be," Andrew says. He graduated with distinction from the University of New Mexico with a bachelor’s degree in theory and composition. During most of that time he was assistant conductor of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Chorus. In 1989 he collected a masters in choral conducting, with highest honors, from Westminster Choir College. The same year Megill and three other Westminster graduate students founded Fuma Sacra. The group, whose title is Latin for "holy smoke," devotes itself primarily to early music and consists of 8 to 10 singers, depending on the demands of the program. In addition to leading the ensemble, Megill adds his tenor voice to its performances.
Megill’s masters project was the historical pronunciation of Latin. "I needed to know about the different Latins because of the music Fuma Sacra works with," he says. "They have different effects musically and expressively."
A 1999 doctorate in choral conducting from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts completed Megill’s formal training. At Mason Gross a major project was Domenico Scarlatti’s "Stabat Mater," which found its way into "Mater Dolorosa," a CD issued after Megill earned his degree.
Now a faculty member at Westminster Choir College, Megill teaches conducting and choral music. He has worked with Joseph Flumerfelt both at the Choir College and at the Spoleto Festival USA. Flummerfelt, the unchallenged pathfinder for Westminster’s renowned choral groups, retires this year.
About Flummerfelt, Megill says, "He has been a guiding force at Westminster for 30 years. His leaving creates a vacuum. It brings sadness, but also an opportunity to build something new. Joe is one of the most important figures in my life." He says he has internalized Flummerfelt’s philosophy of choral music.
"We learned from him that great music-making does not happen because of the big ego of a conductor," Megill says. "Great music-making means facilitating all the singers in a chorus to express their passion. It’s not just expressing the conductor’s passion. These are things that all of us who studied with [Flummerfelt] have learned. We’ll miss his genius, but he has taught us that the music is important, and that what we can offer to the world is beyond what any individual can offer."
Megill brings Flummerfelt’s principles to both his large Masterwork Chorus and his small Fuma Sacra ensemble. This year’s holiday Fuma Sacra performance consists of Renaissance music. It takes place Sunday and Monday, December 21 and 22, in Westminster’s Bristol Chapel. Megill experiences no problems making the transition from Renaissance to baroque music. Fuma Sacra is such a small group, and so steeped in Renaissance repertoire, he says, that its identity is imperturbable.
Megill relishes working both with the hefty Masterwork chorus and Fuma Sacra, which is less than a tenth its size. "If you have good performers, as I do, in both ensembles, they’re both an incredible joy to work with."
He savors also the pluses of both the professional Fuma Sacra members and the volunteer Masterwork singers. "There are advantages to both," he says. "Professionals bring a wealth of experience. They sing every day for four or five hours. The expectation for a conductor is of not taking much time teaching notes or talking about technical issues of vocalism. You tell them what’s wrong and they know how to fix it."
"Amateurs are there because they love what they do. The professional’s choice to take a job is not necessarily motivated by love each time. A large proportion of professional singers’ incomes, especially early in their careers, comes because they’re called in to save things.
"Professionals may not love the particular moment," he says. "Their enthusiasm may be at a lesser level because they know the works. With volunteers there’s a freshness. Many amateurs may not have encountered the work before and they have a wonderful energy."
In both of his New Jersey ensembles Megill programs an encyclopedic range of music. Leaving no genre untouched, beginning with the Renaissance, his repertoire extends to the world premiere of a piece commissioned by Masterwork, "A Prayer for Peace" by Stacey Wong, a former Westminster student of his. Megill describes the far-reaching extent of his work and says, "I try to have a balance between new and old, and between familiar and unfamiliar."
Handel’s Messiah, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. The Masterwork Chorus and Orchestra, directed by Andrew Megill. $25 to $50. Sunday, December 14, 3 p.m.