We’ve all got Christmas traditions, and a great many of those traditions involve the arts. Theater fans have “A Christmas Carol,” ballet aficionado’s have “The Nutcracker,” and lovers of classical music have George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.”
Even if you’ve never listened to Handel’s “Messiah,” you’ve heard it. Like “Ode to Joy,” “Für Elise” and “Pachelbel’s Canon,” it’s embedded so deeply in our culture that it floats through movies, commercials, cartoons and the air itself everywhere during the month of December.
“You’ll (hear) a hallelujah chorus from the ‘Messiah,’ and it’s being performed by, like, the Toronto Festival Choral with hundreds of singers and a huge symphonic orchestra, and it’s just this huge oratorio festival experience,” says John Austin Clark, who co-founded the local outfit Bourbon Baroque in 2007 with Nicolas Fortin.
That soaring swell of music, that version of Handel’s “Messiah” isn’t actually Handel’s “Messiah” — at least not the way Handel wrote it back in 1741.
“That is a type of performance practice that was popularized by the renaissance of performing this music in the 19th century in America,” says Clark, who has served as the group’s producing artistic director since its inception.
Clark, and the other members of Bourbon Baroque, are passionate about the difference, so for the last six years, Bourbon Baroque has celebrated the holidays by offering Louisville a version of the “Messiah” more true to Handel’s vision. This year, they’ll perform “Messiah” on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 24-25.
Throughout his childhood, Clark tried a variety of performance-based creative activities. He chose music, and attended college at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory where he studied music education.
“That’s also where I got introduced to the historical performance practice,” says Clark.
Some might ask, isn’t classical music always historical, as in it’s from history? Historical performance practice looks at the instruments and instrumentation that was used when pieces of music, like Handel’s “Messiah,” were originally written. Historical performance utilizes instruments that aren’t often taught to today’s musicians and are seldom seen in sizable civic orchestras.
Once such instrument is the harpsichord.
“I went and got my master’s at McGill University in Montreal,” Clark explains. “There I studied and got an actual degree in harpsichord performance.”
Clark says these instruments have a certain sound that was designed to listen to up-close, and that Baroque music was originally performed up-close in small venues with small audiences. If you can capture that sound, it’s a whole different experience. Much of the Baroque canon just doesn’t work in larger venues with bigger sounds.
“There’s a whole repertoire that the Louisville Orchestra won’t touch, because modern instruments don’t interpret Baroque music the way that the instruments the music was composed for do,” he says.
Clark clarifies that he has no beef with beefier “Messiahs.”
“You can hear the Louisville Orchestra do the ‘Messiah’ … it’s a different experience and it’s valid, but it’s nice to have options for the Louisville audience,” he says.
Still, he thinks that sometimes, the souped-up savior song can seem to some people like an unapproachable thing, something they can’t really identify with.
That’s why, despite the fact that it’s a part of a very niche performance practice, Clark believes the original Handle arrangement actually allows audiences a to engage with the music in an authentic and emotionally satisfying way.
“It’s nice to have the opportunity in this community to hear a more intimate theatrical version,” he says. “The real authentic way was in a very intimate instrumentation, with way fewer singers. We have 12 vocalists for our choir instead of 40-plus.”
It creates a more moving experience, and the music moves in more ways than one, as evidenced by Bourbon Baroque’s performance in the Louisville Ballet’s “Mozart.”
“Baroque music is steeped in dance. That’s why we hope to have more collaborations with the Louisville Ballet,” says Clark. “The music we create, from our perspective, is dance music.”
The 12 vocalists Bourbon Baroque is teaming up with are part of an interstate collaboration with a chamber ensemble in Philadelphia, called Variant 6.
“They specialize in Baroque interpretation, and they are also very, very adept in contemporary music,” he says.
This will lead to a new level for Bourbon Baroques’s “Messiah.”
“In previous years, we’d pick individuals and rehearse them, but this group has their own sound,” Clark explains. “They’ll bring their sound and pair it with Bourbon Baroque, and it should be an unbelievable product, since everyone is steeped in this practice.”
Bourbon Baroque performs Handel’s “Messiah” on Saturday, Nov. 24, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 25, at 3 p.m. Performances are a St. Brigid Catholic Church, 1520 Hepburn Ave. You can get tickets and check out videos of Bourbon Baroque in action online.