The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress, Chicago, played host to the Twelfth Anniversary program “Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah”, presented in honor of the life and legacy of legendary civil rights leader and cultural hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 14th and 15h, 2017. The rousing concert was a brilliant mix of jazz, gospel, scat, blues, swing and classical with very strong solo performers and a spectacular choral group as well as a full symphony orchestra coupled with a jazz band presentation. It has been described as “your grandmother’s choral classic sliced, diced, spiced, swirled, swung, amplified, and totally reinvented.”
Conceived by Marin Alsop, arranged by Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson, the show featured Suzanne Mallare Acton, Artistic and Musical Director of Detroit’s Rackham Symphony Choir and Choral Master for the Michigan Opera Theatre conducting the 50-piece “Too Hot” symphony orchestra and 6 piece "Too Hot" jazz band, with Bill Fraher, Old St. Patrick’s Director of Concert Choirs directing the 100-member “Too Hot” choir. This spectacular show also showcased pianist Alvin Waddles who thrilled the audience with his wonderful riffs and soloists Rodrick Dixon, tenor, his wife, Alfreda Burke, soprano, and Karen Marie Richardson, alto. Separately and together, their voices pealed like thunderclaps. The program consisted of 26 amazing pieces of stirring music, following and adapted from the original score, with the sold-out audience swaying rhythmically and clapping along enthusiastically.
This was NOT your great-grandmother’s Messiah! This was the work of George Frederick Handel adapted in a very special way- it was a great and glorious expansion of the original baroque oratorio, and the large high-definition video screen really expanded one’s perceptions of this “joyous noise” by revealing the shining, utterly rapt, completely involved faces of the choir members absolutely singing out with all their hearts. And the wondrous music! Thrilling hymns delivered in chorus or through the exquisite voices of the solo artists, who gazed with shining eyes at each other, so filled with collegial pride were they at the incredible true notes the others brought forth! And to hear scat done in operatic tones is an experience the likes of which one doesn’t often experience.
"The Messiah" was composed in 1741 by George Frederic Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible and using the version of the Psalms taken from The Book Of Common Prayer. Although it has a structure similar to that of opera, it differs in that it is not presented in dramatic form, there is no direct speech, and there are no typically operatic characters. The lyrics are definitely strongly religious in flavor: it has been succinctly called “an extended reflection on Christ as Messiah”. The text begins with Prophecies, moves through the Annunciation to the shepherds, dwells on the Passion, covers the Resurrection of the dead and ends with Christ’s Ascension to glory. Eventually the piece became one of the most frequently performed choral works in Western music, frequently adapted for performance on a much grander scale than Handel intended.
It is now generally agreed by scholars that there is not one definitive version of the masterpiece, but certainly the version-and vision- given at The Auditorium is an extremely successful and spirited example of grafting an entirely new concept of liturgical expression onto an existing form. When interviewed last year about their favorite part of the “Too Hot “experience, Dixon and Burke tellingly responded with similar points. Dixon spoke of the relationship between the choir and the audience, a connection that “Is created from the very beginning, and you won’t see anywhere else”. Burke also mentioned the audience, and watching them “Rejoice, sing, clap, dance and even weep”.
It is that connection, a bond with the community beyond just the audience that is fostered by the Auditorium, which is committed to presenting the finest in international, cultural, community and educational programming in Chicago. Indeed, in conjunction with the “Too Hot To Handel” performances, the Auditorium’s Department of Creative Engagement sponsored many programs that engaged Chicago students and community organizations in the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and further celebrated the power of music to inspire. In fact, the program began with a memorable poem read by a Chicago-area student, Jasmine Wilson from Rowe Clark Math and Science Academy.
Finally, as a piece of community outreach toward persons who truly couldn't be present, in a generous sharing gesture that Dr. King, the great community leader, would certainly have applauded, Sunday's performance was live-streamed to 4 correctional facilities in Illinois and Louisiana.
For information about and tickets to all the wonderful performances at The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, go to the AuditoriumTheatre website
All photos by Paul Natkin