Patrick D. McCoy interviews Michael McCarthy, Director of Music at the Washington National Cathedral about the upcoming performances of Handel’s Messiah by the combined choirs, guest soloist and Baroque orchestra, December 3, 4 and 5 in the nave.
MR. McCOY: There are so many presentations of Handel’s Messiah in the Washington, D. C. area in churches and concert halls alike. Could you perhaps inform the readers of this column about some of the distinct differences one may hear in the type of sound produced by the combination of voices in this performance, as well as the instrumental forces?
MR. McCARTHY: The performances that exist in D. C. and nationally come in different types and various set-ups, different sized choirs accompanied by modern orchestras or with period instruments. At the cathedral, 42 voices comprised of children’s voices akin to Handel’s performance in Dublin, which provides a very youthful sound: 22 children’s voices composed of the boy and girl choirs of the cathedral and 18 men. This combination creates what we hope to be a more nimble sound like Handel perhaps heard it, accompanied by Baroque orchestra composed of instruments designed around the same time and played in a manner that is more authentic.
MR. McCOY: How much rehearsal time was required for the preparation for this weekend’s performances?
MR. McCARTHY: The orchestra arrived today for a three hour rehearsal, six hours on tomorrow with the vocal soloists to go through a few of the arias and to brush up a few of the choruses and then bring it all together for a final rehearsal. So all together about ten hours.
MR. McCOY: Wow! So the choir and orchestra only come together over the course of three days to prepare for Messiah? Most church choirs here in D. C. spend months (including my own) attending rehearsal after rehearsal, culminating in a final performance and here, the cathedral choir’s performance is the result of only three rehearsals!
MR. McCARTHY: Yes. All of the choristers rehearse daily and read music. Musically there are so many things going on at the cathedral so we try to keep moving ahead.
MR. McCOY: What are some of the elements that keep these performances fresh in the ears of the listeners who here it year after year?
MR. McCARTHY: I would like to think that there is always a freshness in the way that we perform Handel’s Messiah. It conjurers with the listener a sense of the holiday season. I hope that even in this old masterpiece that they can return to it with a renewed hope and vigor.
MR. McCOY: If you could establish the tradition of performing a different choral Christmas masterwork in lieu of Messiah as a new tradition at the cathedral, what would it be? Are there any plans to in the future to do so?
MR. McCARTHY: Yes. That idea is not beyond our thoughts. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio comes to mind. It has very similar performance practice. Or the performance of John Rutter, John Tavener or even music not necessarily in the tradition of the cathedral. In a place like the Washington National Cathedral, one wants to find a way to amplify the building to those who are not necessarily ‘churched.’
MR. McCOY: How were each of the soloists engaged for these performances of Messiah? Had you worked with them before?
MR. McCARTHY: Two of them I have not. Canadian soprano Gillian Keith is someone that I worked with in the U. K. and she since has become a leading interpreter of Baroque music. Rufus Müller is another old friend from the UK, now living in New York and has been a regular here at the cathedral over the last five years. He draws many of the audience members back year after year. I am looking forward to working with mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson. We are performing the Messiah a ½ step down in Baroque pitch, so she brings a true contralto quality that I am looking forward to hearing. I have not worked with Eric Downs, but have been very impressed with him.
MR. McCOY: Comraderie is an important part of being a professional musician. What other choral concerts or concerts of musicians in the D. C. area have you been able to attend and support?
MR. McCARTHY: I don’t get out to many concerts and is a huge shame on me. D. C. is full of fantastic choral societies and smaller groups like the Cantate Chamber Singers. I am a big fan of Stanley J. Thurston (music director of the Heritage Signature Chorale) His work is quite impressive!
MR. McCOY: When you are not at the cathedral playing or conducting, what do you like to do to relax?
MR. McCARTHY: I am a big ‘foodie!’ I love cooking and I enjoy eating!
MR. McCOY: You need to meet the conductor of The Washington Chorus, Julian Wachner. I understand that he is a fine chef in addition to being a great musician.
What was your first introduction or first performance of Messiah like?
MR. McCARTHY: I was a boy about ten years old in the UK and fortunate to go to a school with a strong music department. I arrived there late and they already were in preparation for Messiah. This early experience was a thrill that stayed with me. As a professional singer in the UK, I performed the work probably over 200 performances
MR. McCOY: As a conductor, who are some of the great conductors who have inspirational in your musical career?
MR. McCARTHY: Fortunately as a singer, I have worked with great conductors, but not the big mainstream Romantic conductors. My field was early music, so I would say those conductors are John Eliot Gardiner, conductor of the Monteverdi Choir, Harry Christophers and the Sixteen and Roger Norrington. Unfortunately, I did not broaden out into opera, but admire James Levine.
MR. McCOY: Musically speaking where do you see the breadth of the cathedral program moving?
MR. McCARTHY: When I came in 2003, I inherited a program, but was asked to think about where the program was headed. We hope that this will be a place where people can experience a broad spectrum of the arts. This building is unique and draws people. We are working towards this being another great center for the arts.
Michael McCarthy will lead the Cathedral Choirs, Guest Soloists and Baroque Orchestra in Several Performances of Handel’s Messiah, beginning Friday, December 3, 2010 at 7:30 P. M., Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 4:00 P. M. and Sunday, December 5, at 4:00 P. M. TICKETS: $25–$85; available online at www.nationalcathedral.org or by phone at (202) 537-2228