November 29, 2006
By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer
The music director is expecting 25 singers in the choir, or there may be twice that many. The number of musicians in the orchestra is up for grabs, too.
No matter. For 16 years, Bridget de Moura Castro has put out a call for volunteer musicians for a Handel's "Messiah" concert to benefit Hartford's Immaculate Conception Shelter & Housing Corp. And every year - this year it's at 6 p.m. Dec. 10 - a sufficient number of musicians miraculously gather at Hartford's Our Lady of Sorrows Church an hour beforehand to warm up before they launch into Handel's glorious (and best-known) oratorio.
Though it was written for Easter, this time of year you can hear "Messiah" in any number of venues, said de Moura Castro, who is also Our Lady of Sorrows' music director, but this is one of the few performances that follows the piece's charitable tradition.
"Messiah" (only plebeians attach the prefix "The") is said to have been written in less than a month - fast even for prolific George F. Handel - after the composer suffered a bout of ill health. Handel, whom Ludwig von Beethoven called the greatest composer who ever lived, first performed the piece in April 1742 in Dublin to benefit, as the program said, "the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the support of Mercer's Hospital in Stephen Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary of the Inn's Quay."
Save for some furious discussion over things like venues - should sacred music be performed in public halls or church - the soaring music was launched into the ages. When the piece was performed in front of King George II, some historians say the monarch was so moved that he stood at the famous "Hallejuah" chorus, and that the tradition remains. (Other historians suggest the king had simply fallen asleep and leaped to his feet at the rousing chorus singing "Hallejuah." The truth is lost to the ages.)
The music is still lifting audiences, but Handel's intent has slipped a bit. Until his death in 1759, he performed "Messiah" as an annual benefit for a London foundling hospital, and later conductors used the piece to shake a few shekels loose for a good cause as well. Music historians say "Messiah" has fed the hungry and clothed the poor more than any music ever.
It's the perfect choice for a fundraiser for a Hartford shelter that started after a priest found a homeless man frozen dead on his church steps. Since its inception in the Park Street church's basement in 1983, the shelter has taken the toughest of Hartford's homeless cases, a population for whom money and space are always tight. Last year, according to the Connecticut Coalition To End Homelessness, shelter staff around the state turned people away 34,428 times for lack of room, and that's with 14 winter overflow shelters standing ready. The shelters - and their emergency backups - can't meet the needs of our homeless population.
De Moura Castro grew up the daughter of divorced parents - both musicians - in England. Every year, her mother would invite neighborhood musicians and friends to her home to perform "Messiah." De Moura Castro remembers children as young as 9 on the piano, and white-haired ladies in their 70s singing for all they were worth. In the same vein, the Hartford concert will include some amateurs, some professionals, some retired, all musicians. The old will help the young. Somehow it all comes together.
From all indications, Handel was not particularly religious, but something came over him when he wrote this piece.
The concert is free, but the audience is asked to bring a donation of cash, food, clothing, household goods.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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