In a brief interview, Maestro Lyndon Woodside, Music Director
of the Oratorio Society of New York, (OSNY) talks about the Oratorio Society's
upcoming concert of Handel's Messiah at Carnegie Hall.
Q. I hear there is a special connection between your group and Carnegie
Hall. What is that?
A. There is a special connection between Carnegie Hall and the
Carnegie Hall was built for Walter Damrosch and the Oratorio Society of New York, with
whom Mr. Carnegie's wife sang soprano. In fact the OSNY performed the final number on the
opening night of Carnegie Hall on May 5, 1891, the Berlioz Te Deum. And the very
first performance of Handel's Messiah at Carnegie Hall was by the OSNY in
Carnegie's first season on Dec. 29, 1891. It has been an annual presentation there by the
OSNY with one lone exception. The year Carnegie Hall was supposed to be demolished, 1960,
we performed it at the old Metropolitan Opera House.
I heard that the Oratorio Society was performing Handel's Messiah even before
Carnegie Hall was built?
A. That is exactly right. Since its founding in 1873, OSNY has been
performing Messiah annually since it first performed it on Dec. 25, 1874 at
Steinway Hall. OSNY is one of the oldest music organizations in New York, and perhaps in
the nation. With this performance in December, OSNY is giving its 126th annual performance
Q. What about you personally? How many times now have you conducted
A. I really don't know. This is, I believe, my 28th season with
of course I have done it annually with them. Then there are the times I did it before
joining OSNY, plus at least 4 or 5 extra performance with them in places like Warsaw and
Prague. In addition, there are at least 15 or so with my Westchester Choral Society. So I
would have to say 50 or more.
Q. Really, that often? How do you keep it fresh each time?
A. As with any great work there is always more to be learned from it, and
always more that can be done to get its message across to the audience. Why just last year
I changed the dynamics of the movement Behold The Lamb of God, in an effort to
make its musical message clearer. However, the basic reason is that I simply love the
work, which always keeps it fresh for me .
Q. What else have you changed about the piece over time?
A. I keep changing it over time, as it is a work that it lends itself to
many different approaches. And works with many different approaches. For example, I no
longer accent the musical theme of the movement And with His Stripes so strongly.
I make changes each year in an attempt to further reveal the meaning of the work to the
Q. Do you think you will ever get tired of doing it each year?
A. Never. I still look forward to every performance. I never tire of
trying to find a better way to realize this incredible masterpiece.
Q. That's nice to hear. Speaking of hearing, as an active listener, what
should I be listening for when I hear the piece?
A. I don't listen to music that way. Rather than listening for anything
specific, I hope the audience member is affected by the total sequence of what they hear,
adding up to the true meaning of the piece. But you might want to take note of three of
the chorus movements, And He Shall Purify, His Yoke Is Easy, and For
Unto Us A Child Is Born. The music for each of these movements, as was the practice
of the day, was taken from another work Handel had previously composed. In these three
instances, Handel simply recycled the material into the Messiah. In fact, the
music of For Unto Us A Child Is Born was originally a love duet. What is
important to note is that the music works superbly well in both the Messiah and
in Handel's previous compositions, and in each distinct use convinces us of the text and
Q. How interesting. What else?
A. In general, you might want to try to hear how Handel's musical
painting mirrors the textual meaning so well.
Q. What do you think will be special about this year's performance?
A. The Choral sections should exhibit greater control and more
expressiveness. This year in particular, the intonation should be superior to former
years. We also have wonderful soloists this year. Brenda Harris is one of the finest
Messiah sopranos around, with a sizeable, expressive voice, and who does florid
passages particularly well. Maria Zifchak, our alto, is new on the music scene, but has
enormous potential, and is headed toward a major career. She is an expressive singer with
a delightful personality. Steve Tharp, the tenor, is a fabulous stylist who sings with
such dash and flair. Bass Jan Opalach, who has sung with us numerous times, is an
incredibly perceptive musician, beautifully schooled, who knows the Handel style so very
well. He is the total artist.
Q. Why do you think Handel's Messiah remains so popular with the
A. I wish I knew. But like any great work of art, it is both accessible
and challenging, with immediate appeal.
Q. Wasn't Messiah originally composed for the Easter season?
However, in the US, it has become a Christmas tradition. Why is that?
A. I believe it was originally intended for Easter performances. But with
parts of the text matching the Advent and Christmas season so perfectly, it naturally
became part of Yuletide celebrations.
Q. What are you trying to achieve in the performance by the Oratorio
A. A moving, dramatic, and enjoyable performance.
Thank you Maestro.
Bob Unterman, December, 2000