‘Too Hot to Handel’ a holiday favorite

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

This time of year Handel’s classic “Messiah” fills audiences with joy in churches and venues across Metro Detroit, as much a part of local traditions as Christmas plays and holiday pop concerts.

“Too Hot To Handel” meshes “Messiah” with jazz and gospel influences.

But another — perhaps lesser known — version of Handel’s oratorio has also become part of the yuletide entertainment calendar in Metro Detroit. It’s a jazz-gospel infused adaptation called “Too Hot To Handel,” marking its 16th year at the Detroit Opera House with a single performance on Saturday.

“This isn’t your grandfather’s ‘Messiah,’ ” says Suzanne Mallare Acton, who is artistic and music director of the Rackham Choir and who will conduct the two-hour-plus musical event. “The first time you go, you don’t know what to expect. This is not a passive ‘Messiah.’ You’re allowed to get up, dance, clap your hands. It’s a much more active audience.”

Premiering at the Lincoln Center in New York in 1993, “Too Hot To Handel” is an energetic interpretation of “Messiah,” which was composed by George Frideric Handel more than 270 years ago. The late 20th-century version was commissioned by Marin Alsop and orchestrated by Robert Christianson and Gary Anderson.

Saturday’s Detroit performance features some 120 musicians, including the 80 members of the Rackham Choir, some members of the Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra, and soloists: tenor Rodrick Dixon, formerly of the “Three Mo’ Tenors,” soprano Alfreda Burke, and alto Karen Marie Richardson.

Acton, who has been director of the Rackham Choir (considered Detroit’s longest continuously existing choir, dating from 1949) since 1996, was instrumental in bringing “Too Hot To Handel” to the Motor City. She was convinced the production would be well received here after seeing a performance in New York.

The Detroit production premiered at the Little Rock Baptist Church in March 2001.”It was a success from the beginning,” she says. “People were hanging off the rafters.”

“Too Hot To Handel,” with the Rackham Choir and host of other musicians, debuted at the Detroit Opera House the following December. It’s been performed there ever since.

“This version is like the ‘Messiah’ with attitude,” says Acton, who is also assistant music director of the Michigan Opera Theatre. “It’s really accessible to everyone in the audience. It’s not just classical music - it’s jazz, gospel, rock and funk. You’ll see people clapping, dancing and doing all kinds of stuff. It’s a really joyous event.”

Billed as a perfect musical celebration for the Motor City, “Too Hot To Handel” embraces Detroit-inspired musical styles, including R & B, jazz, funk, and gospel. The production features an all-star ensemble of Detroit jazz legends, including Marian Hayden, on bass; Alvin Waddles, on piano; and Dave Taylor, on drums, as well as others. Like at a jazz session, the audience can expect extemporaneous solos from the artists.

“What’s really fun about Detroit is that it’s like a reunion every year. Most of the orchestra is the same and we take off where we left off the previous year,” Acton says. “It’s like all of us getting together again, making music and enjoying each other’s company. It’s our annual holiday party concert.”

After the Detroit performance, the Rackham Choir and other members of the production will perform “Too Hot To Handel” in Chicago in January and, for the first time, in Memphis, in April, to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

Among the Rackham Choir members returning to the stage Saturday is Victoria Bigelow, a soprano section leader who has performed in “Too Hot To Handel” since its early years in the Motor City. She’s also sung in performances of the original “Messiah.”

“There are classical elements of the original in ‘Too Hot To Handel,’” she says. “But the new version also has jazz, gospel, hip hop and a jazz combo embedded in the orchestra. You don’t have guitar or syncopated rhythms in the original. There is so much more movement in the adaption.”

Still, Bigelow is a fan of both versions.

“I love the traditional ‘Messiah.’ I love baroque music. I listened to baroque organ music as a child — I was kind of nerdy that way. I love the sound of the harpsichord, where the modern version uses the piano. There is just so much energy in the new one and I love the way it speaks to modern audiences.”

She finds the modern version culturally relevant to a city of mixed races and likes its appeal to audiences of different musical tastes.

“There are so many things to take away from this event,” she says. “Typically, you have white suburban audiences at the Opera House — though that is changing somewhat. But with something like ‘Too Hot To Handel,’ you’re bringing in diverse communities into this beautiful space. Someone who might not go see ‘Tosca’ may come back and experience something else because they had a great time at the Opera House.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.

‘Too Hot To Handel’

7:30 p.m. Saturday

Detroit Opera House

1526 Broadway, Detroit

Tickets $37-$73

(313) 237-7464