Festival celebrates the ‘sheer genius’ of Handel
Handel Week begins Feb.17 at Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park.
Grace Episcopal Church, 924 Lake St., Oak Park
“The Grand Handel,” 3 p.m. Feb. 17, “The Intimate Handel,” 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23, and “Theodora,” 3 p.m. March 3
Tickets are $35 Feb. 17 and 23, and $45 on March 3; $100 for all three concerts; free admission for those 8-18
www.handelweek.com or (708) 524-0695
Updated: February 13, 2013 2:46PM
In the panoply of Western classical music, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), is among the greats, ranking beside J. S. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.
His output was vast, and his talent encompassed opera, song and oratorio, as well as instrumental works.
So when Dennis Northway, Parish Musician at Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park, heard from his friend baritone Philip Kraus about Bach Week in Evanston, he was inspired by the concept.
But his high form of flattery was not literal. “Instead, he thought ‘Why not Handel Week in Oak Park?’” said Kraus, observing that the two suburbs adjacent to Chicago were similar in their interest in and support of the arts. “I call them sister and brother cities,” he added.
So in 2000, Northway, colleague Charles Wells, and Kraus made what the choirmaster and composer calls “a leap of faith,” and introduced Handel Week to Oak Park, using his own Grace Episcopal Church as the venue.
“It has continued to prosper over the years and we now enjoy very full houses and enthusiastic audiences,” he added, noting that in a dozen years the festival has presented nearly half of the composer’s more than 100 solo cantatas for voice and basso continuo, as well as numerous operas and oratorios.
The oratorio this year will be “Theodora,” which joins the impressive list of those Northway has chosen in the past, such as “Israel in Egypt,” “Samson,” “Messiah,” Deborah,” and “Acis and Galatea.”
Soprano Amy Conn will make her Handel Week debut in the title role of “Theodora.” “Two years ago I contacted Dennis about taking part in Handel Week, because he does the kind of music I like,” said the Midwest-based singer. Conn sang with Chicago a cappella for seven years and has soloed with Music of the Baroque, Baroque Band, the Elgin Choral Union as well as with ensembles in Wisconsin and Indiana.
“Our schedules didn’t match at that time,” she said, but he called me for ‘”Theodora.’” The story, she explained, was about a Roman girl, a Christian convert, who refused to take part in ritual worship of Roman gods. “She is a very truthful, spiritual person and a young Roman soldier falls in love with her,” Conn explained. “He is a secret convert to Christianity and tries to save her, but in the end they become martyrs together.”
Kraus, who has appeared in every Handel Week, has the role of Valens. “He’s the villain of the piece,” he said. “He’s a Roman. This is about the Roman persecution of the Christians and Theodora will not renounce her faith.”
Conn’s delight in connecting with Handel Week stems from her interest in Baroque music. “I grew up in the Music of the Baroque chorus,” she said. “That was where I learned how to be a musician.”
After her time in the chorus, she soloed with the ensemble for eight years.
Singing in the second program “The Intimate Handel” is countertenor Joseph Schlesinger, who came to a past Handel Week almost by accident. “I got an email at the last minute from Dennis to fill in for someone in Handel’s oratorio ‘Israel in Egypt,”’ he said, adding that he was glad to be back.
Schlesinger holds a master’s degree in music from De Paul University and sang with the Elgin Choral Union. Though he began his musical career as a trumpeter, he was encouraged by Karen P. Thomas, the perceptive choral director of Seattle Pro Musica, to look at the Baroque literature for countertenors.
Aided in the transition by teacher Teresa Brancaccio, he traveled to the Netherlands on a Fulbright Fellowship to study Baroque music at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague. “I lived in Europe for 12 years,” he said. “Oddly enough I spent half my time there singing Bach and the other half singing contemporary music.”
For Handel Week he will perform in “The Intimate Handel,” singing some of the composer’s Italian cantatas for soprano, recorder and basso continuo, which Handel himself subsequently reworked for a mezzo voice. “The music is gorgeous,” Schlesinger declared. “It’s all about love and suffering — very Italian.”
Violinist Thomas Yang has been Handel Week’s concertmaster since its inception in 2000. “Dennis was a friend,” he said, “and one night when I was playing with the Chicago Opera Theatre, he came up to the pit and said ‘I’ve got to talk to you.’
“So after the performance, we met in the alley behind the Atheneum Theatre in Chicago,” he continued. “Dennis had it all in his head, the whole idea of Handel Week in Oak Park.
“He set the pattern right at the beginning,” the concertmaster continued. “A Concerto Grosso program, an evening of intimate songs, then a big oratorio as the finale.”
For the oratorio, the Handel Week orchestra can be as large as 25 players, but the musicians do not play period instruments. “We use modern instruments with gut strings and play them in the Baroque style,” Yang explained. “We tune them almost half a step lower, so that an A will sound like an A-flat or G-sharp. That produces a warmer darker sound.
“Plus there is a particular way to use the bow, with less emphasis on creating vibrato with the fingers of the left hand,” he observed, adding that modern instruments have metal strings.
Choosing the program each year is a real challenge, Northway admitted. “It is quite a little dance to pull this off,” he said. “Every year I go to the Northwestern University Library, which has both the old and new editions of the complete works of Handel…Every note of music Handel wrote that has come down to us is right in front of me. I spend the day immersing myself in his glorious scores.”
Then comes the hard part. “I try to balance music to feature solo singers, music for my magnificent orchestral ensemble and my impeccable chorus, all while balancing music that is well known and beloved…music that will stimulate, enlighten and challenge,” he declared.
Finding musicians, however, is not a problem, as Northway sang in the Grant Park Chorus for 13 years and seems to know everyone in town. Plus he was dean of the Chicago Chapter of the American Guild of Organists for five years and in 2012 chaired a National Convention of the Organ Historical Society in Chicago. He recently returned from recitals in Scotland celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Scottish Federation of Organists.
On Jan. 27 he presented an organ recital and choral evensong at Grace Episcopal Church in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the church’s 1922 Casavant Organ.
Northway received a doctorate in Choral Conducting from Northwestern University in Evanston and his master’s in Church Music from Concordia University in River Forest.
He recalls that Handel’s music has always moved him emotionally. “One of my favorite memories of being in the Grant Park Chorus was singing Handel’s ‘Israel in Egypt,’ which is basically a concerto for chorus on the Israelites leaving Egypt,” he said. “Handel uses the human voice to color choruses that sing of deep darkness, hailstones, victory, frogs, lice and triumph. This is genius, sheer genius, laid bare!”
Northway also conducted a sing-along Handel’s Messiah annually for 10 years at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Arlington Heights in the 1990s, which set him wondering what the rest of Handel’s music like?
To that question, he answers “Now I know and will spend many, many years presenting the unlimited, almost literally, wealth of one of the great composers of all time.”
The Handel Week festival budget is a modest $70,000, which covers soloists, orchestra, singers, chorus, advertising, rental, publicity and a stipend for the artistic director. “Our strongest patron is Mrs. Helen Pinnell, who has stalwartly and generously supported us for more than a decade,” Northway declared. “We also have a loyal cadre of very, very generous donors…a key component of our ongoing success.”
Concertmaster Yang calls Northway “a Mozart on the podium.” “He makes the music come alive,” he concluded. “At the end of every concert I think to myself ‘Wow, what did we just do?’”
Northway himself gives the pre-concert lecture and promises a “lavish” post-concert reception with the artists.