Sacred Song brings Christmas to July

It only took playing George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” about 500 times in his career for Jared Jacobsen to have a revelation.

“It all of a sudden hit me: I am ready to direct this piece,” Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen, Chautauqua Institution’s organist, will direct the Chautauqua Choir augmented with other singers, as well as 24 members of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, in performing the Christmas portion of the piece at Sunday’s Sacred Song Service at 8 p.m. in the Amphitheater. “Messiah” captures the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in music, and is often performed at Christmas and Easter.

The notion of directing “Messiah” first came to Jacobsen when he was playing the piece on an organ in December. He saw the way that director was able to bring the piece together, inspiring Jacobsen to try it himself.

“The piece had to tell me when it was ready for me, or when I was ready for it, and that was my ‘a-ha’ moment in December,” he said.

In Handel’s time, a battle in London between opera lovers and church music lovers was raging; Handel worked in both areas, but was frustrated with the big money that went into producing bloated, over-the-top operas. He wanted to write his version of an opera, with no scenery and no costumes. After three or four weeks of fervent writing, along came “Messiah,” which is “by all accounts an astonishing piece of music,” Jacobsen said.

Handel — one of Jacobsen’s five imaginary ideal dinner party guests — premiered “Messiah” in Dublin for a benefit concert in a hall that only held about 500 people. The performance generated so much buzz that he pleaded through newspapers with women to leave their hoop skirts at home so the hall could accommodate a larger audience. The performance also featured a soprano soloist in the midst of a notorious affair that would end in divorce, and people came to see her as a celebrity; however, Jacobsen said this oratorio, unlike many, is not all about the soloists.

“This piece is different because it’s driven by the choruses,” he said. “It’s easy enough to learn that it’s accessible to the average singer, but its such amazing writing that you never get tired of it.”

In “Messiah,” Handel paints sounds with a musical brush, Jacobsen said. He described the piece as transparent, clean and clear.

People know “Messiah” so well that it doesn’t matter when in the year it is performed, Jacobsen said. This Sacred Song Service will be different than most, in that the congregation won’t be singing much, although it will surely join in for the ending “Hallelujah” chorus.

“People need an annual fix of ‘Messiah,’” he said. “There are ‘Messiah’ groupies out there, believe me.”

The performance will also set up the congregation for next week’s Sacred Song Service, “Christmas in July.”

Jacobsen is excited and scared for the opportunity to shape music through a choir and orchestra that primarily knows him as “that guy who’s at the organ every now and then.”

“That’s an awesome responsibility,” he said. “I take it very seriously.”