Jeffrey Thomas: How to Handle a Masterwork

Lisa Houston on December 16, 2009

Jeffrey Thomas is preparing American Bach Soloists for their two performances of Handel’s Messiah at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral this weekend. He is also writing a book on Handel’s masterpiece, leading the ABS into new educational territories (including a summer training program), and finding time to create the occasional chilled-avocado and seafood soup.

Tell me how you got started writing your book.

I started the book at the Rockefeller Bellagio Center in Italy. There’s a spectacular villa that, about 50 years ago, was given to the Rockefeller Foundation and became a study center. If you’re granted a residency, you go there for a month and are treated like royalty. [The book is] called Handel’s Messiah: A Life of Its Own. At ABS, we’ve been working through every version [of the oratorio] from 1741, to the last one that Handel conducted. Most performers are certainly aware that there are different versions, but the particulars about them are a little cloudy. Despite the fact that there were 12 versions that Handel conducted, modern audiences typically hear one that Handel never conducted. Those published by, say, Schirmer or whoever, reflect their editors' decisions as to what the best version would be. But the fact that Handel made so many changes from year to year, some of them significant, shows that there is no one version that should be performed.

You’re really saying there’s no one version? It depended on who was singing?

He sought to present the work in its best light, based on the singers he had in any given year. And in some cases some very fine singers came, toward the end of the run in his lifetime, so he would transcribe arias to suit the occasion.

So, Handel's choice of whether to use a certain voice type on a certain aria — for example, on the aria “But Who May Abide,” which exists in versions for both bass and alto — was based on who was available to sing that year?

Absolutely. In some versions he used both a countertenor and an alto. Sometimes he would have both an adult soprano and a treble singing, and the number of soloists would change from four to six to five, according to the circumstances. One work that was so malleable in the hands of its composer and has survived 250 years later in so many forms — performed in rock and gospel versions and all sorts of ways — this is really the definition of a popular masterwork.

How many times do you hear the first few notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or the “Hallelujah Chorus” as background for a Lexus commercial? These modern manifestations are the only ones that some people know. Many have seen West Side Story and have no idea that it’s Romeo and Juliet, or know Duchamp’s Mona Lisa with the moustache better than the original, and that’s OK. The original is always there. A lot of people don’t like modernizations or very contemporary opera productions. They think that so much is lost. But nothing is lost if new audiences are gained.

Can you describe which version of Messiah you will be doing this season?

This season, we are actually at the last performance of Messiah that Handel conducted. He probably conducted one more, but it’s not quite provable. He was already blind in one eye and losing sight in the other.

It was in that year, 1753, with the official opening of the Chapel of the Foundling Hospital, that it really took hold as this great, special-event work. I think it’s the year the piece took hold forever. Handel had become a governor of that institution, along with the painter [William] Hogarth and its founder, a sea captain named Thomas Coram. So Handel was now this great benefactor, which was perfect for his nature.

Tell me a little bit about your impression of his nature. I’ve read that he had a huge appetite for food and that he was “immune to the charms of women.” What do we know?

One way to keep all this wonderful music and art alive from previous eras is to encourage modern people to trust their instincts about art or about anything historical.

What do you mean by that?

What I mean is that too often people listen to a piece of music or look at a painting and feel that their reactions to it are uninformed and therefore somehow not as valid as they might be. I think it happens in the worst way in music.

Most people can go into an art gallery and look at a painting and identify things in it, maybe imagine themselves in it, take hints from it, and come to a conclusion about what it’s about. The same is true with dance. Some combination of music and costumes makes them feel that they can get it. I think too often in music people feel less secure about their intuitive assumptions. It’s unfortunate, and I think we need to do our best to remove this idea that it takes special training to understand it.

Speaking of accessibility, the American Bach Soloists Web site has 24/7 streaming of music. It seems like a big financial decision to make your music available for free.

First of all, there is an assumption now in our pop culture that music is free. Well, it is! You can’t fight that. That’s a kind of a change that is thoroughly embraceable and must be embraced. So, what you want to try to do is to sell the concert experience as a presenter or as a producer, and give people a reason to want to hear it. I think making the music available helps people hear what we do.

We just stepped forward a year ago and did it. People love it! They listen to it. Looking at who looks at the pages, we can see that it’s being used by a lot of educational institutions and universities and colleges, so that’s great. Last year we gave away CDs at our concerts. In our two Messiah performances we gave a free CD to everyone. A CD makes us a couple dollars, but we’d rather have people come back and come back again [to concerts]. Giving people something that they want to return to: That’s the idea.

Tell me how you came to early music.

I became an Adler Fellow here at the [San Francisco] Opera. My first day was also the first day of Terry McEwen [as general director]. I had been hired by Kurt Herbert Adler. I remember the first day getting on the elevator with McEwen and both of us looking at each other like: “Who are you?” And it pretty much stayed that way. I never felt like I fit in completely among aspiring opera singers. At about the same time, Laurette Goldberg, who’d heard me sing in a Scarlatti opera, hired me to sing some Bach with then-her Philharmonia Orchestra, and it was conducted by Gustav Leonhardt and with Max Von Egmond. Here I was with this god and this person I’d listened to on recordings! That began my early-music career.

I’m told that you have a dream to own a pet store in Maui. Is there any truth to that?

I had this crazy idea of a café–pet store–wine bar. People could be there from early in the morning till late at night. How nice would that be? I definitely want to find more ways now to be sure that what I’m doing is what I love to do.

What do you enjoy when you’re not working?

I like baseball. I love what I call “chill music”: New Age-y, quiet music. I love jazz, whether it’s Ella Fitzgerald or Harry Connick Jr. The fact that they’re doing something so complicated, so difficult ... I have no idea how it’s done. I like things that I don’t understand but know that I like. In my car I have this great satellite radio with a great “chill” channel. I love to cook.

What’s your favorite dish?

It used to be Italian food, but in the past few years I’ve become a soup expert. I make this wonderful chilled-avocado soup with crab and shrimp, and I make a wonderful Hungarian mushroom soup that I borrowed from the Moosewood cookbook and changed a bit.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading The Power of Now on my phone. It’s a marvelous book. At the memorial service just a couple of weeks ago for Karla Lemon, I learned so much more about her than I had known. In addition to being a stunning conductor, she had so many other interests and apparently was always willing to let herself be led to what the next right thing to do would be. Her life is inspiring.


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