Asking a flutist to play violin portions of Handel’s “Messiah” is a bit tricky since, among other things, flutists need to breathe during long, rapid-fire passages.
It’s also an adjustment for the conductor and audience since obviously a re-orchestration of the classic composition that replaces the string instruments with wind instruments is going to sound different.
But David Grove, a board member of Juneau Community Bands, said that’s part of what inspired the upcoming performance of what’s commonly known as the “Christmas portion” of the oratorio — “Part I” and the “Hallelujah Chorus” — this weekend at Ḵunéix̱ Hídi Northern Light United Church. He said the project began two years ago after he and his wife — Sarah McNair-Grove, president of JCB — heard the re-orchestration performed by the Orchestra of St. John’s in London, which was crafted by orchestra conductor John Lubbock.
“The thing about great music is it’s so amenable to reimagining which still sounds great,” Grove said before the first full local rehearsal by the chorus and instrumentalists at the church Wednesday evening. “And so we saw this, listened to it and I said ‘you know, we could do this.’”
Lubbock, in a description of his re-orchestration at the Orchestra of St. John’s website, stated it happened after he heard an arrangement of “Messiah” performed only with wind instruments.
“Actually I thought it was dreadful,” he wrote. “There were too many instruments and very silly ones like piccolo trombones and saxophones. But it did trigger the thought that a more tasteful wind arrangement might be a rather interesting exercise.”
There were certain points to ponder such as “whether I should use clarinets as they didn’t exist in Handel’s time, but actually giving the viola part to the clarinet has been one of the most interesting aspects,” Lubbock added.
Playing flutes during Wednesday’s rehearsal were Colleen Torrence and Inga White, who agreed the most notable part of trying to play the violin parts is “there’s a lot of really fast runs,” as White put it.
“We can mimic a little bit a violin in different ways,” Torrence said. “But we don’t obviously have the same technique, their being a stringed instrument and our being a wind instrument. But I think through breath and your fingerings we can do some of the same things.”
Conducting the re-orchestration requires some adjustments — in both working with individual performers and expectations of the ear — but there’s little difference overall, said Rich Moore, an orchestra and choir teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé who is presiding over the performance.
“The thing that I’ve had to do is slow it down, on some songs, on that extreme speed. That’s where the winds can’t go as fast,” he said. But overall “they can hang with 99% of what the strings do.”
Moore said he was a bit hesitant when he was approached and asked to conduct the non-traditional scoring for “Messiah.”
“I knew it was possible because it’s been done, but I didn’t know if it was going to sound cheesy, or cheap, or plasticy because a lot of times when a wind band performs a string thing it can, to my ears, kind of sound a little bit cheesy, a little forced.”
But Moore said his doubts were set aside during “the first part of the first time I heard it.”
“My brain kind of had to do a double-take and ‘I’m like OK, that’s good too,’” he said. “So, within the first five minutes of hearing this orchestra play I was like ‘OK, this is going to be fine. It’s going to be great.’”
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 957-2306.
Know and Go
What: Handel’s “Messiah” — “Part I” and “Hallelujah Chorus.”
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Ḵunéix̱ Hídi Northern Light United Church, 400 W 11th St.
Admission: Donations accepted.