MUSIC / CHRIS PASLES : Hallelujah! A Moving, Modern 'Messiah' : Album Featuring Pop and Gospel Stars Has More Heart and Soul Than Many Traditional Versions

Something strange and challenging is going on in the music world. As more and more classical musicians get caught up in breakneck period-style performances of Handel's "Messiah," the pop music world has discovered this great work and doesn't seem to mind letting emotions show in its performances.

Last year, a contemporary Christian version called the "Young Messiah" came out on cassette tape, compact disc and videotape, as part of a national tour that included two sold-out performances at the Anaheim Convention Center.

Now, inspired by that effort, comes "Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration." It is an urban contemporary version, says Chris Palmer, general manager of progressive music for Warner Bros. Records in Nashville, Tenn. (Reprise Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros., issued the album.)

"This was really structured to be a celebration: one, of the birth of Christ; two, of the 250th anniversary of Handel's work, and three, of black music's contribution to contemporary music. It's all encompassing," he says.

There are about 75 artists involved. "The 'Hallelujah!' Chorus alone has 55 to 60 artists," Palmer says. "This has been two years in the making."

A partial list of the rhythm and blues and gospel artists, and groups, includes Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Patti Austin, Boys Choir of Harlem, Tramaine Hawkins, Howard Hewitt, Al Jarreau, Quincy Jones, Gladys Knight, Johnny Mathis, Dianne Reeves, Take 6, Vanessa Williams, Stevie Wonder and the Yellowjackets.

"A Soulful Celebration" is not a complete "Messiah," and what there is of the original Handel is not sung in the traditional classical manner. No one will confuse this version with any of the more than 25 recordings listed in Schwann's Opus Guide to classical music, and no one expects it to supplant any of them. Nor does it have to. Consider it another edition of the work.

The recording is a 72-minute selection taken mostly from Part I--often called the "Christmas" portion--and ending with the "Hallelujah!" Chorus. The arrangers--there are more than a dozen--rely on Handel's vocal lines and harmonies, but mostly as a springboard for individual interpretation.

Soul singer Howard Hewitt, for instance, takes what in the original is a brief six-bar recitative--"Behold, a Virgin Shall Conceive"--and extends it to a nearly four-minute song by adding his own melodic lines and text ("I'm calling you, Father. Come on down now and stay by me . . . ").

Patti Austin, on the other hand, stays close to Handel's vocal line in "But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?" (Handel rewrote this aria for a countertenor for the London premiere, but it is usually sung today by a bass. Austin's higher voice falls into a reasonable Handelian tradition.)

Some sections are treated very freely. Solos ("Every Valley") are turned into duets. Choruses ("And the Glory of the Lord") are turned into solos--and sometimes take on an infectious Caribbean beat.

Virtually every singer here takes liberties in bending, altering or extending a musical line for expressive purposes. In fact, that's expected from pop singers. In Handel's time, vocalists would have done so, too.

Singers Vanessa Bell Armstrong and Daryl Coley finish "Comfort Ye My People" by ad-libbing words and falling all over each other with repetitions of the opening phrase. Canonical? No. But isn't the main message of the "Messiah" exactly that: Comfort Ye My People?

Some sections are disappointing, however, despite the big names involved. Stevie Wonder and the gospel group Take 6 make "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion" sound too laid-back and unshaped, despite some impressive note-sliding by Wonder.

Generally, fugal passages are simplified, as are the melismatic extensions of certain syllables. Vocal range is often narrowed in order not to overtax the soloist, who must occasionally lapse into falsetto to reach a note that a classically trained vocalist could take easily.

One of the most adventuresome and interesting sections is the Overture, created as a "partial history of black music," according to the liner notes. It starts with African drumming and passing through spirituals, ragtime, big band and later musical styles. But Handel's music is still there, and discerning it can be part of the fun.

The recording ends with the "Hallelujah!" Chorus as arranged smashingly by Mervyn Warren, Michael O. Jackson and Mark Kibble, and conducted by Quincy Jones.

Why is a classical music critic interested in any of this?

First, curiosity about how a mainstay work in the classical repertory can be treated in a different musical tradition.

Second, boredom with hearing endless holiday performances that often are dutiful and rarely are moving.

Third, hope that the classical music establishment will realize that dutiful performances of this great work are not enough, that if classical musicians do not provide emotion-filled performances, there are others who will.

Finally, joy and delight in learning that the "Messiah" speaks so strongly to some musicians that they feel impelled to extend it in their own traditions.

The "Soulful Celebration" won't take the place of my favorite recording of the "Messiah"--Charles Mackerras leading the English Chamber Orchestra. But I may turn to it to renew my spirit after hearing yet another dreary straight version.

Co-executive producers for the project were Warren, Gail Hamilton and Norman Miller. Portions of the proceeds are earmarked for the Children's Defense Fund, a national organization that lobbies for children's needs.

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