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Messiah's Little Brother

UCI prepares to battle Handel's less-than-famous "Samson"

The following article appeared in the March 6, 1998 issue of OC Weekly, originally headlined "Hooray for Obscurity":

Handel’s "Messiah" is a musician’s bread-and-butter. Everybody - regardless of musical or religious stripe - has heard it. Churches and concert halls fill up when it’s played. Communal "Messiah" sing-alongs bring the paying public to pseudo-religious karaoke rapture.

It may run nose to nose in the Christmastime popularity contest with "The Nutcracker," but come Easter week, "Messiah" owns the track. What that means, of course, is that card-carrying members of the Musicians’ Local can always earn some extra walking-around money at holiday time by doing a "Messiah" gig.

So what the hell’s up with UC Irvine? This Friday and Saturday, the UCI Concert Choir and Symphony Orchestra are mounting - not the original "Jesus Christ Superstar" - but George Frideric Handel’s scarcely ever heard sacred oratorio "Samson."

Jeez! Why can’t they teach our kids to earn an honest living wage playing the “Hallelujah Chorus?”

“They’ll all get a chance - any singer that continues singing - will get a chance to sing 'Messiah' some day,” answers Joseph Huszti, director of vocal and choral activities at UC Irvine. “Probably this is the one time in their lives that our students will have an opportunity to perform a so-called ‘obscure’ oratorio like 'Samson.'”

These days, you could apply the word “obscure” to 99 percent of Handel’s output. Though he was the best known composer of his day and wrote a huge body of work including some 30 oratorios, 45 operas and 100 cantatas, most of that music has faded out of hearing range. If his name survives, it’s mainly as composer of "Messiah," the "Water Music" and the "Music for the Royal Fireworks."

But Huszti, who’ll direct the chorus and orchestra in this weekend’s performances, believes that those old forgotten scores hold some great musical finds and thinks that Delilah’s boyfriend is long overdue for his own resurrection.

“Samson is an inspired work,” he says. “It’s a tremendously dramatic work. And it has many, many, many wonderful arias and choruses that are unknown because they’re not performed that often. I think that if the oratorio were performed more, they would be just as popular as the choruses from 'Messiah.'”

He has good reason to think so. In Handel’s day, they were as popular. The two scores were written back to back and (in keeping with the famous Chinese curse) were born in interesting times.

In 1741, Britannia ruled the waves - and a good chunk of the world’s land mass besides. John Bull was glaring at Spain down the barrel of a British musket in The War of Jenkins’ Ear. In politics, the wise but corrupt Robert Walpole government was on its way out, William Pitt had his eye on Downing Street and Bonnie Prince Charlie had his eye on St. James’ Palace. In philosophy and economics, English life was being seriously altered by the ideas of John Wesley, David Hume, Charles Townsend and the original Jethro Tull.

In arts and letters, William Hogarth lampooned British mores with the fiery zeal of a gimlet-eyed pug, Alexander Pope gave poetic airs to the elite and Henry Fielding raised hormone levels to new highs with his earthy prose. Meanwhile, the most famous musician in the world was a 250-lb., patrician German expatriate who counted both Pope and Fielding among his friends.

Handel, after years of force-feeding his Italian operas to a cool English public, was bankrupt (again) in 1741. But in the summer and fall of that year, he wrote two English-language opuses that put him back in the money and kept the gaoler away. One was "Messiah." The other was "Samson," based on the Restoration era poetry of John Milton’s "Samson Agonistes".

The success of "Messiah’s" Dublin premiere the next year gave Handel the cash he needed to make his "Samson" production a theatrical tour de force, and it turned out to be a bigger success in London than "Messiah" was.

“For 'Samson,'” Huszti says, “Handel went around Covent Garden and hired actors and actresses to sing or play his roles. The dramatic content in this work was as important to him ­- much more so, in fact - than in 'Messiah' or any of his other oratorios.”

And for obvious reason. Samson’s adventures made a better story than Jesus’. In fact, the Old Testament - with its colorful warring characters overseen by their viciously petty god Jehovah - made for more powerful drama than the New Testament and its forgiving Father Spirit. Handel often raided it and other Jewish legend for his dramatic oratorios like "Saul," "Israel in Egypt," "Joshua," "Joseph and his Brethren," "Solomon," "Jeptha," "Alexander Balus," "Susanna," and "Judas Maccabaeus."

Another of Samson’s dramatic strengths, which Huszti says has been a big plus for UCI’s student production, was the large number of challenging vocal solo parts that needed to be filled.

“What we tried to do was give as many of our young singers as possible an opportunity to have solo roles. We’re not bringing in any outside soloists or older professional soloists,” he says proudly. “It’s done entirely by our students - undergraduates, as a matter of fact.”

Huszti’s singers have already performed four choruses from "Samson" for the dedication of a synagogue in Pacific Palisades in January, but he’s especially looking forward to this weekend’s collaboration with the university orchestra.

“We have such a wonderful rapport with Tom Cockrell, who’s the artistic director of the orchestra, because he loves opera and he loves singing,” Huszti says. “We try at least once a year to do something major with chorus and orchestra. It’s good for both parties.”

And it’s especially rewarding when - as with "Samson" - they can pull a moldering score from the shelf, dust it off and make some exciting new discoveries. That, Huszti emphasizes, is a primary mission.

“I think the most important reason we exist at the University is to take works of substantial literature - the classics of their art form, whatever era they’re from - and bring them to the kids.”

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