Handel’s Messiah: Nostalgic Melodies

A Holiday Favorite:  Handel’s Messiah continues to delight listeners for a variety of reasons.

by Patrick D. McCoy

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After a 2010 performance of Handel’s Messiah at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church conducted by David Charles Griffiths (center) with soloists Patrick D. McCoy, Pamela Simonson, Lori Bryan and Johnny Butler.

For many people, the memories of Handel’s Messiah-the great seasonal choral work got far beyond the Christmas holiday. It brings back thoughts of childhood and even professional accomplishment. The first time I experienced Messiah as a young singer was as a teenager in the early 90s at West End Baptist Church in my hometown of Petersburg, VA. My mentor, James (Jim) F. Peak, Jr. conducted several performances of Messiah there with full orchestra and professional soloists. Those experiences set the stage for my love and appreciation for the work for years to come. Last year, ‘Jim’ sent me the very Messiah score that I sang with as a teenager, with all of my markings that I noted from his rehearsals. As the years moved on, as a young soloist, I was featured with the Petersburg Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Ulysses Kirksey on several occasions. Messiah has certainly been a major part of my development as a professional musician.

My favorite recordings of the work is actually an Atlanta Public Radio broadcast of the Altanta Symphony performing it. Many years ago, I found the VHS tape at a Rite-Aid storage bin of holiday tapes for sale. On that video, among the soloists was mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson. A full circle moment for me when was in 2010 I had the opportunity to hear her as soloist at Washington National Cathedral under the direction of Michael McCarthy, who I also interviewed about the same performance. A review that I wrote about the performance at the cathedral was published in The Afro American Newspaper said of Ms. Simpson’s performance “Mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson sang with a vocal warmth that has inevitably become her trademark. In the aria O Thou That Tellest, she brought a jubilance to the work that was matched by the McCarthy’s lilting tempo.”

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After hearing mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson as soloist at Historic Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, DC (2013)

You would think that a famous soprano would be singing “Messiah” all around the world. That is not necessarily true. In 2012, I had the opportunity to interview soprano Renée Fleming for the 2012 Holiday Issue of Washington Life Magazine. In that interview, Ms. Fleming state that though she was courted for a large recreation of the first performance of Messiah, she has never performed the work in its entirety as a principal soloist.wlrenee

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A 2010 performance of Messiah at Trinity Church DC with conductor Adam Graham with soloists Vashawn McIlwain, Jennifer Randall, Schauntice Marshall and Patrick D. McCoy.

So over the years, I personally have had some great experiences of Messiah, as a listener, chorister and conductor! In 2010, the choirs of Trinity Episcopal Church (DC) and Takoma Park Baptist Church presented a joint performance at Trinity under the direction of former music director Adam Graham. In that performance, I was the tenor soloist. Just a few years later, I was named music director and conducted my first performances of Messiah at the same church. A major full circle moment was having soprano Lisa Edwards Burrs (my former professor at VSU) and Chase Peak (My mentor’s son) both as my principal soloists.

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Conducting Messiah in 2015 with Chase Peak, Lisa Edwards-Burrs, Bridgette Cooper and Darnel Roulhac.

Over the years, I have been blessed to experience Messiah in many ways. Dr. Owen Burdick who was formerly music director at Trinity Church Wall Street relocated to Washington, DC. At his new post at the Church of Ascension and Saint Agnes, Burdick established his place in the DC musical crown with his performances of the work there. 

Dr. Owen Burdick rehearsing the choir of Ascension and Saint Agnes.


An interview between us marked the occasion and he is continuing the tradition. One of the remarkable aspects of Burdick’s rendering is the subtle dramatic flair that is inherently felt.

At Historic Shiloh Baptist Church, Dr. Thomas Dixon Tyler is known for adding the dimension of multi-media, the interpolation of special Christmas spirituals and anthems and visuals that bring Messiah to a whole new audience.

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A performance of Messiah at Historic Shiloh Baptist Church, Washington DC.  In this picture, Evelyn Simpson Curenton conducts.

 Other performances that I have experienced since coming to the Washington Area are those performances at Metropolitan AME Church under the direction of former music director Dr. Lester Green and at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church under the direction of David Charles Griffiths.  But perhaps, one of the most unique performances that I have participated in was the rendering of the Christmas portion at the 60th Birthday of Terri Allen.  I along with soprano Pamela Simonson, mezzo-soprano Sylvia Twine and baritone Gregory Watkins performed in quartet accompanied by pianist Victor Simonson.

Messiah is special to so many people for so many reasons. Whether it is listening to a recording or attending the performance by your favorite choir, Messiah has stood the test of time.

A Few Messiah Picks of the Season:

Washington National Cathedral,  The Cathedral Choir and Baroque Orchestra conducted by Michael McCarthy
December 2nd – 7:30 PM
December 3rd – 4:00 PM
December 4th – 4:00 PM

3101 Wisconsin Ave., NW-Washington, DC 20016

Metropolitan AME ChurchSunday, December 4, 5. p.m. conducted by Dr. Roland Carter

1518 M Street, NW-Washington, DC 20005

Trinity Church DC, Friday December 9, 7 p.m., conducted by Steven M. Allen and David Cole, 7005 Piney Branch Rd, NW Washington, DC

Shiloh Baptist ChurchSunday, December 11, 5 p.m. conducted by Dr. Thomas Dixon Tyler-1500 Ninth Street, NW-Washington, DC 20001

The Church of Ascension and Saint AgnesWednesday, December 14, 7 p.m. conducted by Dr. Owen Burdick

Corner of 12th & Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20005

 

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