How many times has Handel and Haydn Society artistic director Harry Christophers conducted the world’s most popular oratorio, Handel’s “Messiah?” Asked that question, he paused and thought. Probably around 150 with The Sixteen, the United Kingdom-based period instrument ensemble and choir he founded in the 1970s, he said. Add another 30 or so in Boston since he took up the H+H position in 2009, and other performances here and there throughout his lifetime, and the final estimate is “close on 200.”
Not counting applause or intermissions, a full performance of “Messiah” usually lasts between 130 and 140 minutes, depending on tempos. Multiply that by 200, and it turns out that Christophers has spent a cumulative 2½ weeks of his almost 68 years conducting “Messiah” — and that’s not including rehearsals. What’s more, he’s about to add three more to that total, as he leads the H+H Orchestra and Chorus in their annual “Messiah” next weekend — his final “Messiah” as artistic director before he steps down after this season.
Year after year, night after night, “Hallelujah” after “Hallelujah” — it might seem impossible to keep it fresh, but for Christophers, it’s easy. It helps that he loves the piece and considers it one of the greatest oratorios ever written. “That’s probably the main thing, so it never tires on me,” he said over Zoom. Furthermore, he’s not set in his ways when it comes to tempo or expression. “I’ve seen other conductors’ scores where there’s metronome markings at the beginning of movements, and they don’t alter those. . . . I’m not somebody that has those.”
Rather, Christophers delights in the differences every year. “[Soloists] all have their own thoughts, tempos that will suit their arias, and thoughts about how they want to approach various aspects of it. For me, that’s the joy because I’ll mold that into a slightly different dramatic movement,” he said. “If a soloist is putting a breath in a certain phrase, then we need to articulate slightly differently. So there’s always little things. . . . It’s also something to actually challenge us. There are far too many people that go to ‘Messiah’ because they’ve done it every year and they’re supposed to, like they’ll go to ‘Nutcracker’ or a midnight Mass. But ‘Messiah’ is so much more than that.”
One of countertenor Reginald Mobley’s first experiences with Handel and Haydn Society was singing in the chorus for the 2013 performance of “Messiah,” which Christophers directed. Next weekend, the Jamaica Plain-based singer joins Christophers for another “Messiah,” this time at the front of the stage as the countertenor soloist, a part he also sang in 2019 with Masaaki Suzuki and in 2020′s “Messiah for our Time,” a filmed performance created in partnership with GBH.
“I’d never have thought of ‘Messiah’ the way I do now if not for Harry,” Mobley said in a phone interview. “In English-speaking countries, ‘Messiah’ is just that tradition that everyone’s been doing since time immemorial . . . it’s choirs, solos, then the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus and everyone goes home. But what Harry made me realize is that it’s not just this tradition that everyone does.” Christophers knew how to tap into the drama of the score and how to make the story come as alive as any other oratorio with named characters and a concrete plot, Mobley said. “It was through Harry’s treatment of ‘Messiah’ that I finally saw the overarching theme.”
In a religious sense, that theme is the life of Christ, but “Messiah” is an entertainment, not a worship service. “It tests our emotions. It takes us through all emotions. I mean, mega sadness, but incredible joy and hope,” said Christophers. “So yeah, it’s a pretty good piece.”
For Mobley, who directs H+H’s “Every Voice” series and works as a programming consultant for the organization, being around Christophers has been a treasured learning experience. “He never rested on the idea of me or anyone having a beautiful voice,” said Mobley. “He was always so focused on the drama and the truth behind the work, and how it’s related and presented to the people who are listening. His real priority was the audience, and the integrity and honesty of the music.”
Truly replacing Christophers would be impossible, Mobley added. “That’s the thing you have to understand about this whole process. You’re not replacing Harry. You’re just exploring a whole different aspect of the musical sphere.”
When Christophers comes to Boston for “Messiah” at the end of this month, it will be his first time traveling outside the UK since the beginning of the pandemic. Originally, the conductor planned to step down from his position at the end of the 2020-21 season, but he delayed that one year due to the pandemic. “I didn’t want to leave them in the lurch,” said Christophers.
To finish out his tenure in Boston, he’ll be leading one program of Mozart and Haydn (Jan. 28 and 30) and Haydn’s “The Creation” (April 29 and May 1), both of which were originally planned for last season. Working with H+H made him fall in love with the music of Haydn, he said. “You guys have really given me the bug — I suddenly realized just what was possible.”
After his tenure ends, he plans to spend more time working with The Sixteen. “Back in 2020, I made a statement here to do a lot in [the UK], and that’s proved its weight in gold, really, because we will continue to build on that.” But he won’t say no to a guest slot with H+H again — “as long as my successor will have me back!”
WHERE TO SEE ‘MESSIAH’
The customary “Messiah” sing-ins are thin on the ground this year as the world readjusts to singing during a pandemic, but this winter offers a few options.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY Conducted by Harry Christophers. Soloists: Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Reginald Mobley, countertenor; James Way, tenor; Roderick Williams, baritone. Symphony Hall, Nov. 26-28; Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, Dec. 15. www.handelandhaydn.org
BOSTON BAROQUE Conducted by Martin Pearlman. Soloists: Maya Kherani, soprano; Christopher Lowrey, countertenor; Aaron Sheehan, tenor; Kevin Deas, baritone. GBH Calderwood Studio, Dec. 10-12. Dec. 11 performance will be streamed live on IDAGIO. http://baroque.boston
PILGRIM FESTIVAL CHORUS SING-IN Part I of “Messiah,” the “Hallelujah” chorus, and seasonal carols are on offer at this sing-in. Scores are available to borrow. First Congregational Church at the Green, Middleborough. Dec. 17, 7:30 p.m. www.pilgrimfestivalchorus.org
OPERA ON TAP BOSTON “Drunk Opera History: Handel’s Messiah” promises “a Messiah sing like you’ve never heard it before” over brunch. The Burren, Somerville. Dec. 18, 11 a.m. www.operaontap.org/boston