National Philharmonic (NatPhil) will present three performances of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” at 8 p.m. on December 17 and 3 p.m. on December 18 at The Music Center at Strathmore, as well as at 7:30 p.m. on December 23 at Capital One Hall. Conducted by Stan Engebretson, the program will feature a cast of African American singers alongside the National Philharmonic Chorale.
In the spirit of the season, proceeds from the NatPhil performances at Strathmore will be donated to the 2nd Century Project to raise funds for the restoration of the historic Scotland African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Zion Church in Potomac, MD.
The church has been a center of community for its Black congregants since 1924, but its structure was nearly destroyed and left unusable by a flood in 2019. To save its rich legacy, the church and its Montgomery County allies launched the 2nd Century Project, a multi-phase project to repair, restore, and safeguard the building.
Handel’s Messiah, written in 1741 as an Easter offering, with English-language text compiled by arts patron and friend Charles Jennens, consists of an oratorio featuring baroque instrumentation: strings, oboes, trumpets, timpani, and basso continuo—as well as a choir and four vocal soloists.
Since Handel’s death in 1789, however, the work has been adapted for orchestra and chorus, and is now “a staple of the Christmas season”. NatPhil will perform this work with the National Philharmonic Chorale under the baton of Engebretson. The choral and orchestral mass will be joined by four soloists: Kearstin Piper Brown, soprano, Lucia Bradford, mezzo soprano, Norman Shankle, tenor, and Jorell Williams, baritone. NatPhil will also welcome the Scotland A.M.E. Zion Mass Choir and its director Michael Terry for a free pre-concert set at the Strathmore performances one hour prior to these performances.
In addition, NatPhil will partner with the Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts (CAAPA) to present “Hidden Handel”, a seminar at the CAAPA Cultural Center on Wednesday, December 12 at 11 a.m. This panel discussion with talk-back aims to “shed light on the lives of artists within their historical context, and to acknowledge the conflicts that exist between art and artists to this day.” Additional education opportunities surrounding Handel will also be explored through NatPhil’s “Harmonic Justice” series, which highlights the intersection of racial equity and classical music. One area of focus will be the recent research uncovering Handel’s link to the slave economy through his own financial investments and acceptance of donations from investors in the Royal African Company.
“We are overjoyed to bring back Messiah—our most popular event each season—and to reach more people in the DMV area by presenting the program at two locations,” says National Philharmonic Music Director Piotr Gajewski. “Several aspects will make these performances even more meaningful than in years past: our fantastic cast of vocal soloists, whom we’re thrilled to showcase; our effort to raise awareness of, and much-needed support for, the Scotland A.M.E. Zion Church; and our learning and engagement activities to educate audiences about the complicated history behind Handel. All of these comprise what I deem to be an appropriate response to the programming of Handel’s masterpiece, and one that we aim to thoughtfully design and bring to our community for seasons to come.”
Tickets for all three performances are on sale at nationalphilharmonic.org.