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Getting a Grip on Handel

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Conductors have more choices than ever about how to approach Handel’s perennial “Messiah.”

“We can go from early performance practice style to romantic style,” said David Lockington, who will lead the Pacific Symphony in the work today at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

“It’s done every possible way every year by different groups. Here in New Mexico, we do it with a very small ensemble. With the Pacific Symphony, it will be a bit larger.”

Lockington, 41, was speaking by phone from his home in Albuquerque, where he conducts the New Mexico Symphony.

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“My style is essentially romantic but informed by early performance practice,” he said. “There is nothing dry about the way I do it. It has to be dramatic. It comes out of the opera tradition that Handel established at the beginning of the century. Of course, there are no sets and costumes. Still, it has to have a big impact.”

His “Messiah” performance will not be the complete 3 to 3 1/2 hours, however. Most of the cuts, which he chose, will be in Part Three. “I feel sad leaving out some real gems,” he said. “But it’s such a long evening doing the whole thing.”

Lockington says this performance will still trace the composer’s trajectory “from expectancy . . . to a joyful climax. There will be a good clarity and a flow to the way we’re doing it. The soloists have a pretty equal share. It can have a very tragic feeling, but it doesn’t necessarily have to.”

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Lockington comes to his approach both as a conductor and an instrumentalist. Born in a small town near London, he began his musical life as a cellist. He earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Cambridge, then went to Yale in 1978 on scholarship to earn a master’s degree in cello performance. While at Yale, he studied conducting with pedagogue Otto Werner Mueller.

“I knew then I wanted to be a conductor,” he said, “but I didn’t feel ready to pursue it wholeheartedly. So I pursued the cello.”

He played in the New Haven [Connecticut] Symphony and as assistant principal cellist in the Denver Symphony for three years before turning fully to conducting when he took the post of assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony in 1992. A year later, he became music director of the Ohio Chamber Orchestra in Cleveland. He joined the New Mexico Symphony as music director in 1995.

Being a string player, he said, gives him an advantage as a conductor in that he knows “the basic sound and sense of style” of playing, especially in earlier music.

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“Classical style and baroque style are the hardest things, particularly for American-trained orchestra players,” he said. “It’s not that much easier for Europeans, but they have more of a tradition in early performance practice. Certainly in England more people do it. But in the large orchestras here, the staples are romantic and [early] 20th century works.

“In earlier music, you’re always dealing with strong/weak [accents], down/up [bowings]. And what we’ve taught ourselves to do in the last 100 or so years is to always play long loose bow strokes with a consistent vibrato. So the natural inflection of baroque music is no longer reflected automatically in the bowing.”

That approach can be heard in the playing of cellist Pablo Casals, for instance, whose recordings Lockington grew up with. “He was always trying to get the sense of a speaking tone as well as a singing tone, like the pianist who has to create a sense of line which almost always decays,” the conductor said.

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A rejection of that approach began several decades ago, however, as practitioners of the self-styled historical performance practice movement ascended, both through performances and recordings.

“When I started listening to [early performance practice] recordings about 10 years ago,” Lockington said, “it was very freeing, initially. I thought, ‘Now I can make a million different choices and they will be equally valid.’ ”

That movement over time has further fragmented. “There are so many different styles in that now too. Many more people in the movement are using vibrato and creating legato line. They’ve found a disparity between an orchestral tutti and a singer who sings legato and does the opposite to what happens in the down-bow.

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“Trying to find the right balance [between singers and players] takes enormous sensitivity on the part of every musician. It requires an enormous amount of time and rehearsal and editing of parts. It’s hard.

“Word accent is the thing that spices the thing for me. One thing Handel liked about his soloists of the day [was that] they had incredible stage presence and charisma and style and effect and could put it across with a powerful impact. I like my soloists to be creative. I want them to feel free to do the things we’ve planned but even to be spontaneous at times. It’s the way I approach all music. It has to have an emotional impact.”

* David Lockington will conduct the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale in Handel’s “Messiah” at 3:30 p.m. today at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. The soloists will be soprano Barbara Shirvis, mezzo-soprano Ellen Rabiner, tenor Matthew Chellis and baritone Dean Elzinga. $18-$50. (714) 755-5799.


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