Edward Polochick, Conductor and Continuo
David Coombs, BSO Contrabassoonist, spoke with Ed Polochick about the Messiah.
|Ed Polochick playing the harpsichord. This instrument was built by Mark Adler. It is a copy af an 18th century Flemish harsichord.
Ed, what is it that is so special about the Messiah?
The Messiah is a fascinating work of great genius. Handel composed it in only 3 weeks, in 1741. He was a manic depressive, and locked himself in his room for the entire time, getting food delivered, and passing manuscript pages under the door to the copyist. One of my fantasies is to write a book or a play about the creation of the Messiah. Because of the speed with which it was written, it is a very “bare bones” score – with ambiguous tempo markings, very few dynamics, and no ornaments indicated. Handel relied on his performers to fill in the details.
The Oratorio form is basically an unstaged opera. It became popular in England at the time because opera was not allowed during Lent, and the public still wanted their entertainment. Most of Handel’s Oratorios are on Old Testament themes and personalities, such as Israel in Egypt and Judas Maccabeus. The Messiah was something different, even though the majority is still based on Old Testament texts. As a matter of fact, the name of Christ is only mentioned in two of the 53 movements. But, the two most popular Choruses, the “Hallelujah” Chorus, and “Worthy is the Lamb”, are from the Book of Revelation. Handel, like Bach, knew his Bible very well.
The most astonishing thing about the Messiah is the overall form. It is really a series of Baroques dance suites: Allemandes, Courantes, Menuets, Gavottes, Gigues and other dance forms. The first 12 movements form one large suite, related by the tempos, the key relationships and the texts. The Pastoral Symphony through the end of the first part form another suite. This is genius! This is what inspired me to create what I think is a unique version of the Messiah, unlike any that I have heard either live or in recordings.
The combination of swift tempos and immediate segues from movement to movement, give a breathless quality to the work which help to underline the dramatic intensity of the text. It is truly brilliant tone and text painting – Handel was a true master!
We’ve been performing the Messiah every year since 1982. I know, because I’ve played every one! How has it changed over the years?
My basic conception of it has not changed, but it has evolved over time. There are thousands of decisions to make about every detail of dynamics, articulation, ornamentation, and phrasing. Every year we find new insights, and tweak a few of our old ideas. We have many of the same performers who have been with us every year since the beginning, so we have a great sense of continuity. You cannot learn this score quickly. It evolves. The combination of this continuity, along with a little “new blood” each year, is the ideal recipe. It would be almost impossible to recreate this Messiah anywhere else.
Even with the “period” instrument and performance craze in the 50’s and 60’s, no one else ever figured out the obvious secrets of the score. We should document our version. We should record it. People come to hear our Messiah and say “My God, I’ve never heard anything like this before”.
You conduct from the harpsichord. Does anyone else do that anymore?
There are fewer and fewer keyboard conductors. It’s a shame that the art of conducting from the keyboard is becoming so rare. In Handel’s time it was the norm. I find that it brings me into the orchestra. We’re all in this together. Like performing chamber music. People ask, “How can I direct without standing up with a baton in my hand?” I can show how I want it played with my own playing. I create moods with sound, which is much better than with gestures.
Having been on staff for 20 years, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with the BSO on innumerable occasions. I miss these times immensely. I love you guys. You folks are so fabulous. I miss you, but at least I come back for the Messiah!