In Sir Andrew Davis’ vision of ‘Messiah,’ the winds and the percussion shall sound

Sir Andrew Davis

Lucas Dawson

Because of the strong influence of the period-instrument movement, a trend in recent decades has been toward smaller, more transparent forces for performances of Messiah, George Frideric Handel’s popular oratorio. These approaches hark back to 1754, when the composer led a modest performance at London’s Foundling Hospital that employed a 38-piece orchestra and 19-member chorus. 

British conductor Sir Andrew Davis, best known locally as music director of Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2000-21, has chosen to buck that direction with a re-orchestration of the work for larger forces; his version puts an emphasis on the winds, including flutes and clarinets that were not in the original, and percussion. “I was thrilled when the CSO asked me to do it, because I’m rather proud it,” Davis said of his arrangement. “I like what I’ve done to it.”

Reviewing a 2016 Toronto Symphony Orchestra recording of Davis’ version on the Chandos label, Chicago-based music critic Lawrence B. Johnson wrote that the conductor’s devotion to the Baroque style and spirit of the original is evident. Despite the larger scale, it avoids the grandiosity associated with many takes from the late 19th century through mid-20th century. “Nowhere to be found here is the opacity, the turgidity, the sheer musical bulk once common to Messiah re-writ large,” wrote Johnson for the site Chicago on the Aisle. “In Davis’ finely wrought setting, clarity rings as smartly as the instrumental effects themselves.”

Audiences can judge for themselves when Davis joins the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus for performances Dec. 21-23 of his version of the 1741 work, which has become an annual holiday staple alongside The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol.

Certainly, others have attempted re-orchestrations of Messiah, including such heavy-hitters as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who created a well-known 1789 version that Davis believes doesn’t entirely work. In addition, Eugene Goosens created a 1959 arrangement for conductor Thomas Beecham. “It’s interesting, but it is very heavy-handed,” Davis said of that version. “It’s sort of thick and rather turgid at times, and I certainly didn’t want that.”

In anticipation of a 2010 performance of the oratorio with the Toronto Symphony, where he served as chief conductor in 1975-88 and is now conductor laureate, Davis decided to assemble his own re-orchestration. He began work on the project in December 2009 and finished in October 2010. “There are one or two things that might shock people,” Davis said. “But on the whole, I’ve just tried to take the music absolutely as Handel wrote it and just deck it out with all the colors that the modern orchestra has to offer.”

Other instruments in Davis’ nearly 2½-hour arrangement that were not in Handel’s original work include harp and trombone. He has also deployed a range of percussion, including celeste, glockenspiel, marimba and cymbals. In all, the CSO performances will employ more than 55 musicians and nearly 100 choristers.

Among the more noticeable differences in Davis’ approach to Messiah is his use of a clarinet solo at the beginning of the soprano aria I know that my Redeemer liveth, which, he said, is “surprising, shall we say.” “I haven’t done a lot,” Davis said. “That’s the one example of where I’ve gone completely away from Handel in terms of orchestral color.”

Another “eccentric moment,” as he describes it, comes in the chorus The Lord gave the word, where he employs two tambourines, an addition that he said was in no way meant to be gimmicky. “It’s a very fast and vigorous number, and the tambourines add to the bustle of it all,” he said.

Davis’ take on Messiah is not his only foray into orchestration. He created a 2004 arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor for orchestra and more recently, he has been working on orchestrations of other Bach organ pieces for a recording for Chandos. “There is some tradition of orchestrating Bach’s organ pieces, but mine are going to be better,” Davis said with a chuckle.

Given Davis’ stature in the operatic world, it is not surprising that he and CSO officials were able to recruit a group of top-flight singers as soloists for these performances: soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Matthew Polenzani and bass John Relyea. “I think it is an excellent cast,” Davis said. “I’m really thrilled.”

He noted that he has worked multiple times with Polenzani and Relyea, who appeared on Davis’ 2016 recording of Messiah. “He’s just wonderful,” Davis said of the latter. “The voice has depth, warmth and vigor.”

Before Davis unveiled his version of Messiah, he had conducted the work only three times previously in his career. But in addition to Toronto, he has since led his version of Messiah with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony in Washington, D.C.

“It’s an amazing piece,” he said. “It really is quite extraordinary. It’s not without good reason that every Christmas, and other times of the year, it gets done.”