Houston Symphony

Conductor Stephen Stubbs On The Joy And The Details Of Presenting Handel’s “Messiah”

A conversation with the Grammy-winning conductor, who makes his Houston Symphony debut this holiday season

Renowned early-music specialist and Grammy Award-winning American conductor, Stephen Stubbs, will lead a Houston Symphony holiday tradition this season. He’ll serve as both conductor and harpsichordist for their annual performances of Handel’s Messiah, featuring the orchestra, Houston Symphony Chorus and guest artists (soprano Teresa Wakim, countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński, tenor Thomas Cooley and bass Kevin Deas).

This marks the Houston Symphony debut for the Seattle-based conductor, who spent a distinguished 30-year career in Europe before returning to the U.S. in 2006.

Stephen Stubbs stopped by Houston Public Media to talk about why he likes to conduct Messiah from the harpsichord, what makes this oratorio an audience favorite and more.

Check out highlights from our conversation below, and listen to the complete interview above.

On working with the Houston Symphony:

“I’ve [done a lot of] Messiahs like this – sort of ‘fly in and do a Messiah with the symphony orchestra of a particular place’ – and I must say that this is by far the best I’ve ever had. The quality of the symphony musicians! Not only are they great players, but they actually have some Baroque knowledge, some way of playing their instruments that really relates to the music … It’s wonderful.”

On conducting Handel’s Messiah from the harpsichord:

“There’s a harpsichord in front of me, and my music is in on that harpsichord. [But] when the choir and orchestra [are all going], I do keep my hands free of the harpsichord to [conduct]. The reason I have the harpsichord is that for the more intimate moments I can actually be playing the music in this sort of more intimate setting. So it’s just two different ways of having a musical influence – one is by playing and sort of shaping the music with the instrument, and the other is by showing with my hands the direction we’re trying to go. So I’m going back and forth between conducting and playing … It was the way that Handel himself did it! … He was a magnificent harpsichordist and organist. So, often in his oratorio performances, not only did he play during the performance, but he would often play big organ concertos in the interludes between the acts of an oratorio. Handel, as a keyboard player as well as a musical director, was a very imposing character!”

On the role of the soloists in Handel’s Messiah:

“I don’t feel it’s a sort of anonymous soprano, alto, tenor and bass. They do have roles; it’s just that they are not named … The soprano, for instance, at the beginning, who is … saying that birth of Jesus is about to happen, she’s like the Angel making the Annunciation. And the bass, all the way along, is somehow the voice of God. It has this sort of very imposing character, and sometimes he speaks as if he is God. The tenor then, at a certain point in the work, takes on the voice of Jesus and is basically telling the story of the Passion in a first person way. And I think the alto role [sung by a countertenor is this performance] is the representation of humanity, sort of looking on at this Passion and expressing the feelings of humanity around it. This helped me quite a lot to think of those voices as having specific characters.”

On how Handel’s Messiah affects him, both emotionally and physically, by the end of the performance:

“When I’m done with a performance … I actually feel physically invigorated because conducting – unlike playing an instrument, which can be somehow a little bit constricting – conducting of course [uses] your whole body, and so it’s almost like a kind of ‘artistic calisthenics’! I like the conducting part, and … afterwards I might feel a little bit exhausted, but I feel invigorated physically … But the work is a whole series of emotional effects. And if things go right, there are moments that are just sublimely beautiful and other moments that are exciting, other moments that are really tragic. So it’s got this huge range of emotions, and that’s what I think of as a great night out, or a great night in the theater, when I go as a listener or a viewer. So Messiah has it all, and that’s why it’s stayed so popular.”

The Houston Symphony, Chorus and soloists present Handel’s Messiah, led by guest conductor and harpsichordist Stephen Stubbs, on Friday, December 16, 8pm; Saturday, December 17, 8pm and Sunday, December 18, 2:30pm at Jones Hall. To learn more about Handel’s Messiah, visit the Houston Symphony’s podcast – On The Music.

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Catherine Lu

Content Producer & Announcer

While growing up in Chicago and Houston, Catherine’s love for art, music and creative writing was influenced by her teachers and parents. She was once concertmaster of the Clear Lake High School Orchestra and a four-time violinist of the Texas All-State Symphony. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Catherine...

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