GHOSTS OF DICKENS and Nutcrackers, the St. Paul Winter Carnival, widespread possession by consumer demons, and chestnuts roasting by the remote-controlled gas fire are once again upon us--along with another staple of the year-end Saturnalia: Handel's Messiah. This year, the Dale Warland Singers team up with Bobby McFerrin andthe St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to offer two traditional performances and a sing-along version of the classic. Recently, we had a chat with Warland about this musical behemoth and its immense popularity in recent years.

For starters, why do audiences want to hear this piece over and over? "Well, first of all, it's good music," responds Warland, who is celebrating his 25th year as the animus of his world-renowned choir. "Not only is it well-crafted, it's inspired, and that's what makes music wear a long time. And it has become tradition; there's something within all of us that occasionally wants to do something or hear something that's familiar."

This seasonal nostalgia is compounded by our town's great receptivity to choral music. Whereas it often acts as a maiden aunt to orchestral music in other places, choral singing enjoys a high profile among Twin Cities audiences. "It's probably a combination of things," Warland opines, "but somehow, over the years, the leadership in the community--not just exclusively conductors or the choral leadership--has instilled in people the value of choral music, what it does for the mind and what it does for the soul. And that's been enhanced by the cultural life that migrated to this country with the Scandinavians, where there was a singing tradition, particularly in the church, but also in the schools."

People can reanimate that heritage at the Sing-Along concert, where the entire audience acts as the choir (bring your own score, or rent one at the door). You need not be a diva to join in--anyone who sang in a chorus in high school, lapsed from the church choir, or who just plain likes to sing is encouraged to join in. It's said that children with musical training do better in math and analytical thought, although that's not the only reason to sing, according to Warland.

"Just the details of making music stimulate the brain, and along the way it builds sensitivity to sound, to beauty, to people, to that stream of influence," he explains. "There's nothing like the human voice--either singing or listening, if it's good--to fill the soul. It is a spiritual thing that can happen when the elements come together."

After having fed the souls of his own choir, Warland will turn them over to Bobby McFerrin for the performances. What's it like to give up control of a choir as soon as it's weaned? "It depends on the conductor,' Warland assures. "If there's a mutual respect between conductors there's no problem. It's an honor and a privilege to work with a great musician like Bobby McFerrin. So even though he has not had a great deal of experience with choral music, and especially this work, I trust his musicianship, and he trusts how I prepare the chorus. It's a joy."

Lack of experience notwithstanding--McFerrin declined to be interviewed for this story on the grounds that he had "never done Messiah before"--the Resource Trust Creative Chair of the SPCO has gotten high marks from singers and audiences alike for his work with choirs. Singers who performed in his rendition, earlier this fall, of Fauré's Requiem use words like "transcendent" and "spiritual" to describe working with a conductor who is, almost uniquely among orchestra conductors, a singer himself.

McFerrin joined the SPCO staff to help the orchestra develop creative programming, and Warland, too has become known as a innovator in his field, championing the cause of 20th-century music and including at least one brand-new work in every regular concert. Audiences can expect a vibrant spirit in their collaboration.

"I feel very free to interpret," says Warland. He approaches works of the standard repertoire "always with an eye toward the past, and what we know of the original performances; but I think we have to adapt it to the instruments we use today and to the kind of singing technique that we have developed. I'm not a purist. I like a fresh interpretation of these classical works." (Scott Robinson)

Traditional performances of The Messiah are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. ($13-$35); the sing-along version starts at 11 a.m. Saturday ($23) at Ordway Music Theatre in St. Paul.


WHAT MAKES A rock & roll band want to cover, record, or even write Christmas songs? A spirit of irreverence either towards religion or the commercial monster the holiday has become? A genuine sentimentality or nostalgia? As a recovering Catholic, I try to simply enjoy Christmas without blowing it out of proportion or sanctified context. It's weird enough that "Christmas" takes up an entire 10 percent of the year (we spend an average almost 10 years per lifetime in Christmas!). But anyway, it seems plenty of local musicians are plenty comfortable in appropriating Chrismas cheer--and that seems true this year more than ever.

For the past few years, the local indie-rock standard for Christmas fare has been 1993's Christmas Anxiety, a delightfully fucked-up 20-band cassette compilation engineered by Glenrustles head Rich Mattson in his Flowerpot Studio (some copies may still be floating around). The concept was that various bands (now mostly defunct) got together, got blitzed, and went to work pissing on the yule log with varying degrees of quality and irreverence. Imagine Beangirl, with a chorus of crying babies, mincing up the sharps and (especially) the flats of "Christmastime is Here," and you can pretty much get the picture. As these things often are, the tape was ultimately a one-joke listen ("Oh, I get it! These guys are desecrating "Deck the Halls" by singing it drunkenly!"). But at least it was fun.

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