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Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ Bach’s ‘Christmas Oratorio’ presented

Oliver Prezant

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The word “polyphony” means two simultaneous, independent lines of melody.

It seems fitting, then that the 12th Day of Christmas Festival Concert pairs members of Polyphony: Voices of New Mexico and the musicians of Chatter in a duet of two holiday masterpieces: Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” and excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah.”

The concert is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 5, at the Cathedral of St. John.

Written in 1741, “Messiah” remains a holiday evergreen nearly 300 years later.

“I think when you look at a piece like Messiah, you’re really looking at something that touches a deep chord in the Western tradition,” said Oliver Prezant, conductor and creator of education programs at both the Santa Fe Opera and Opera Southwest. Prezant will give a pre-concert talk an hour before the concert.

“It was written out of a kind of giving,” Prezant said. “It was a charity event in Dublin. It wasn’t even premiered in London. It takes this really important story, and it has persisted as this really popular piece that brings people together in the concert hall.”

Bach wrote his “Christmas Oratorio” in the form of six cantatas; the program will focus on the two extending from the birth of Christ to the visitation of the Wise Men, Polyphony artistic director Maxine Thévenot said.

Penned in 1734, the work slyly leaves some room for doubt, Prezant said.

“Bach as a composer is writing in the Lutheran tradition. He dips into doubt more easily than Handel – the harmonies, the colors. I think that’s very human. Sometimes it’s in the harmonies; sometimes its in the intensity of the rhythm. Sometimes he uses one voice against another.”

The two works require similar orchestrations, using three trumpets, timpani and a full complement of singers,” Thévenot said. The chorus features 24 singers from across the state, including Portales, Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Albuquerque. The New Mexico-born tenor Marcos Vigil, now living and working in New York, will return home to helm the tenor solos.

“Neither of these pieces are operatic,” Prezant said. But “they manage to capture the feeling of the subject matter with great drama.”