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Marin Alsop: Stand and Deliver

When Marin Alsop returns to Carnegie Hall this month with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, she will be leading a choir of local high school students and an audience eagerly awaiting its cue to participate. Too Hot to Handel—based on Handel's Messiah—not only reinvents one of the great masterworks of classical music, but it also redefines the concert hall experience. Sarah Johnson, Director of Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute, spoke with Alsop about the Messiah for the 21st century.


What was the inspiration for the Too Hot to Handel concept? 

Alsop: I've always been drawn to crossover pieces. I had this epiphany when I invited these friends (who were non-musicians) to come hear Handel's Messiah. They said, "Oh, that's the one where you stand up, right?" I said, "Yeah." They said, "You know, it takes too long until the part where you stand up." I just started thinking about it, and thinking that it wasn't a piece that resonated enough with my generation. What could happen to change that relationship people had to the piece?

And that led to this version of the Messiah with elements of jazz, gospel, rock, and R&B. 

Alsop: Of course in thinking about the Messiah specifically, I thought about how much Handel would've liked it to be reinvented. It really lends itself, in my opinion, to different kinds of stylistic treatments. I found two of my very best friends (Gary Anderson and Bob Christianson), and I got them in a room, and I said, "Listen, I want to reinvent Handel's Messiah." And they said, "Aaah, no, you can't do that." Then we started talking about it, and we went through every piece. "Maybe this would be a great shuffle." Or, "How about this as a jazz waltz?" Of course, the "Hallelujah" chorus had to be a big, full-out gospel number. They went off for about six months and did their arrangements, and I think we have a fantastic reinvention.

There must be countless challenges in recreating a masterpiece like this. 

Alsop: It's interesting. As long as the re-creation is done with the utmost sincerity and respect, I think it works very well. I think the challenges are overcoming people's fear about somehow tampering with the work. We talked about retaining the structure. The melodies are the same; the text is the same. What's different is the feel and the orchestration and the harmonic additions. But the basic DNA of the piece is identical to Handel's intent, and I think that's what is very important to me, to maintain the integrity of the piece.

And what experience do you want the audience to have? 

Alsop: Everybody's hotwired for music; everybody should be able to access music. Part of this reinvention of the Messiah is an effort to allow people to enjoy the live concert experience, just like they would go to a pop concert or a rock concert and participate. Music is a participatory experience. There's nothing more rewarding than hearing people call-and-respond in a very genuine response during this piece. And when the "Hallelujah" chorus gets going, everybody takes part, and it's really wonderful.

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