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'Too Hot to Handel', Marin Alsop's modern rendition of a holiday staple turns 30

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Handel's "Messiah" and "Hallelujah," a staple of the holidays composed by George Frideric Handel over 280 years ago and still moves audiences around the world - about 30 years ago, the maestra Marin Alsop put her own spin on this baroque standard with "Too Hot To Handel."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GOSPEL MESSIAH: HALLELUJAH!")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR #1: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah...

SIMON: And we're so pleased to be joined once again by Maestra Marin Alsop, chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony and director of the graduate conducting program at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, and a serious jazz musician, too. She's at WYPR in Baltimore. Maestra Marin, thanks so much for being back with us.

MARIN ALSOP: Oh, it's great to talk to you again, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What moved you to reimagine a masterpiece like Handel's "Messiah" 30 years ago?

ALSOP: There was literally one event that sort of triggered it, which was that a friend of mine was saying, well, what performances do you have this week? And I said, oh, I'm doing the "Messiah." And he said, oh, you know, I really like that part where everybody stands up, but it's a little bit boring until then. I thought, OK...

SIMON: Oh, mercy.

ALSOP: ...That's not the right attitude...

SIMON: What do you want? Yeah.

ALSOP: ...At all, you know? And...

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: ...The idea of updating it - and it's not a foreign idea. Mozart actually updated Handel's "Messiah" a little bit, and he didn't take it quite to this degree. But I had this idea, especially for the "Hallelujah Chorus," that it could be a really, you know, barn-burning gospel number for sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GOSPEL MESSIAH: HALLELUJAH")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR #1: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah...

SIMON: Some people might think these are two forms of music that are diametrically opposed. But you don't feel that way, do you?

ALSOP: No, not at all. I mean, the thing that we're not really in touch with is that during Handel's lifetime, performers used to embellish, ornament, improvise all the time, so there would never be two performances that were just literally the notes you see on the page. There was a lot of jazz-like improvisation.

SIMON: We want to hear maybe some of the contrast between the two approaches. We're going to play the well-known section "Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs," and let's ask our listeners to try and determine which one belongs where.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MESSIAH: PART II, NO. 24 SURELY HE HATH BORNE OUR GRIEFS")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR #2: (Singing) Surely, surely, he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Surely, surely, he hath borne...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GOSPEL MESSIAH: SURELY HE HATH BORNE OUR GRIEFS")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR #3: (Singing) Surely, surely, surely, oh, surely, he hath borne our griefs...

SIMON: I don't know.

ALSOP: (Laughter).

SIMON: Can you give me a clue?

ALSOP: You know, I would say that I love them both, and that's what's so awesome. When I had this idea, I got together with two fantastic arranger - composer/arranger friends of mine that I'd work with in the commercial world, Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson. And of course, they already knew I was crazy, so it wasn't, you know, that much of a stretch. But I brought the score, and we went through each of the numbers. And we said, OK, this sounds like a jazz waltz. Maybe this could be a shuffle. And I tried to have the recit (ph) sections - you know, the recitativo sections...

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: ...Be more call and response, that kind of thing, and more improvised. And both Gary and Bob did a fantastic job.

SIMON: Jazz, of course, is known for improvisation, individuality, expression through solos. That can also happen with the classics, can't it?

ALSOP: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. You know, it's so interesting because I think our conservatory training has gotten away from that. And something that I really try to stress with young musicians is having that ability to take a solo, to write something out or to improvise on - in the moment. That's an incredibly creative outlet for young musicians, so it's nice that we can get back to it a little bit with this performance.

SIMON: Well, and let's hear some - can I call it scatting? - in the "Every Valley" section. Yes, scatting.

ALSOP: You may, for sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GOSPEL MESSIAH: EVERY VALLEY")

THOMAS YOUNG: (Scatting).

ALSOP: That's fantastic. That's Thomas Young, the tenor, there. And you can hear from the orchestration that it's not your traditional Handel orchestra.

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: So we added five saxophones, a rhythm section, a Hammond B-3 organ.

SIMON: Oh, my God.

ALSOP: So it's really a blast. And you know, Scott, I think having the audience up in the aisles dancing, clapping, screaming - this is my idea of a great classical concert.

SIMON: And you encourage your players to add their own flair, don't you?

ALSOP: Oh yeah, definitely. I think that for me, the idea of breaking down those barriers so that once again classical music can be as it was when it was originally played - it can be an active participatory sport, you know? - that people really - when they heard the "Messiah," you know, they really reacted. The king...

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: ...King George II, at the time, he's the one that was so moved that he stood up during the "Hallelujah" chorus. That's why people stand up in it today. I think I'm carrying on that tradition a little bit. Not only are they standing up, but they're really dancing in the aisles now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GOSPEL MESSIAH: HE SHALL FEED HIS FLOCK")

UNIDENTIFIED SOLOIST: (Singing) Come unto him, all ye that labor. Come unto him...

SIMON: This is obviously an important time for families and for humanity when we get into the holidays. I wonder if there is a message you take both from Handel's "Messiah" and "Too Hot To Handel" that you hope can enliven the lives of people.

ALSOP: You know, I think that music is such an incredible equalizer in a way and connector. It brings people together. And everyone's allowed to feel whatever emotion they have, and it's valid. You know, there's no judgment in music. That's what I love about it. And I think Handel's "Messiah," this message of hope for a future that can be filled with miracle and joy and light, you know, that's a message that we all need today, and we have to hang on to that. And I hope you get to hear it soon, Scott.

SIMON: Oh, I hope so, too. Maestra Marin Alsop celebrating 30 years of "Too Hot To Handel." She will be conducting this at the Royal Albert Hall in London on December 7. Marin, so wonderful to be with you again. Thank you so much.

ALSOP: Thanks so much and happy holidays, everybody. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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