Reminiscing with Marin Alsop about our collaboration on "Too Hot To Handel: The Gospel Messiah"

Infused with Latin rhythms, jazz improvisation, and gospel harmony, Too Hot to Handel is an exuberant re-invention of Handel’s classic Messiah that blends the timeless brilliance of the original masterpiece with an invigorating infusion of jazz, gospel, rock, and R&B.  This ingeniously re-imagined evening was premiered by Marin and the Concordia Orchestra and has been entertaining audiences for over 25 years. The piece will make its international premiere this week in São Paulo, Brazil including a first-time performance outdoors at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), with Marin conducting the Symphony Orchestra of the State of São Paulo.

In 2010 Carnegie Hall and the Weill Music Institute engaged hundreds of New York City high school singers in year-long workshops, rehearsals, and performances, culminating in two concerts with Marin and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Stifelman designed the curriculum for the 200 choristers and prepared them for their final performance at Carnegie Hall.

Leslie: It is hard to believe it has been 25 years since our world premiere of Too Hot To Handel at Lincoln Center with the Concordia Orchestra.  Your audiences in Brazil are in for an amazing evening.  Do you remember the moment you had the inspiration to create this piece?

Marin:  During my early years working in New York playing and conducting all styles of music, I was looking to create re-interpretations of classic works.  It had become a popular thing to do at the time, and in the jazz world it was very typical.  I think we were programming the 10thanniversary of Concordia’s series at Alice Tully Hall and I wanted to do something very special for our winter concert that year.

Leslie: That’s right. I know you love the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn version of the Nutcracker Suite.  Were you influenced by their work?

Marin: Yes. That piece and their arrangement of Peer Gynt Suite were very influential in my thinking at the time.  And Quincy Jones, whom I had also worked with many times, had just written his own version of the Messiah.  I really wanted my idea to be actualized by a large group with full orchestral instrumentation including a rhythm section.  My goal for Concordia was always to combine different styles within a symphonic sound.

Leslie: And Concordia had so many great players who could do that kind of crossover playing.  I count myself lucky to have been one of them.  It was an amazing group of musicians that you were able to put together.

Marin: Concordia’s roster was full of musicians who were experts in all styles of music, and we were able to perform everything from Bartok to Ellington.  In addition we were all friends, which made our overall collaboration even better.

Leslie: How did you end up engaging Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson to adapt the work?  It must have been an enormous undertaking considering the length and complexity of Handel’s original work.  In particular adapting the choral parts in the gospel style must of have been challenging.

Marin: In theory it seemed like a simple idea, but actually it was a deeply complex process. We were very lucky to have known Bob and Gary.  They were expert studio writers with great compositional craft, and also knew how to work quickly.  It was great that they both played on the premiere.  Bob, who is an expert Hammond organist often performs with me, and Gary is a wonderful baritone sax player who worked for years in the Woody Herman Band.

Leslie: And again they were your friends, which made it all possible.

Marin: Yes. It is always wonderful to make music with people you love.

Leslie: Do you think your Brazilian audiences will react differently then your audiences in North America?  I remember the first performance in New York so vividly with the audience on their feet after the opening choral number Every Valley.

Marin: The Messiah is a universally popular piece that has enjoyed an extremely consistent performance record for over 250 years and this adaptation adds a contemporary excitement that I think all music lovers can enjoy.  I’m very excited to share this version with my orchestra and the audiences in São Paulo.

Leslie: What do you think it will be like to perform outdoors?

Marin:  I’m especially excited for the outdoor performance because I believe everyone will feel a special sense of spirit and collaboration. My passion as a conductor is always to engage audiences in new and exciting ways, and this should be a wonderful celebration.

Leslie Stifelman