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Handel’s Messiah Rocks- A Joyful Noise
Artist: Various 
Label: Sony Classical / Integrity
DVD: 105 minutes
Can a modern pop-culture audience get a handle on Messiah? More importantly – how far do we ‘dumb-down’ great art to fit into a pre-fab, plastic frame? In other words, if it ain’t baroque – don’t fix it. All puns aside, Integrity Music and Sony Classical have tag-teamed a symphony orchestra with pop-metal rock and roll in a handicap match against George Frederick Handel and his beloved oratorio. The match ended in a submission move, with Handel clinging to the ropes.
Although the symphonic work is top notch, the rock/metal playing is competent, and the singing is Broadway quality, the elements work against each other instead of producing one harmonious piece. Whether your ‘thing’ is classical or rock, at some point you will feel like you’re being pandered-to. There’s a kind of condescending quality to the over-the-top pseudo-metal/opera vocal performances, not unlike some of the early ‘Christian rock’ acts that often came off as trying too hard, coming off a bit too ‘on the nose,’ and ultimately sounding more suspicious than genuine.
Of course, all of this is unfortunate since the music of Handel – and most baroque music – is quite adaptable to a rock format, and can be quite effective, as is demonstrated in the overture, where Handel’s music is more-or-less preserved in terms of melody and rhythm. It’s only when the piece takes liberties (and it takes huge liberties) that the project begins to sink into both mediocrity and stagey excess. The solo vocalists, in particular, go very Broadway in their deliveries: grimacing faces, earnest stances, wide-eyed and vibrato-filled. The direction of the day seemed to’ve been, ‘over-sing as much as possible,’ and when the male soloists go into Metal-head mode the whole thing begins to reek of self-parody, and the female soloist is frequently shrieky and over the top.
The DVD is well-photographed and has good sound and image quality. Of course you have to watch the conductor do his thing wearing leather pants… The audio CD version spares us some of the grimacing and posturing of the performers, but is almost harder to get through without the benefit of at least being able to watch the band play.
If it seems that I’m being a bit harsh, I suppose I am. It’s a shame to waste the concept here since The Trans-Siberian Orchestra has already pretty much shown that it can be done – of course, that group has always given out their classical/pop-metal in measured doses, coupled with otherwise pedestrian pop ballads. What’s made the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s classical tracks so appealing, though, is the fact that they pretty much didn’t mess with the basic material, but amplified it (no pun intended) for the modern medium. Handel’s _Messiah Rocks_ has taken the oratorio and hacked it in pieces, re-writing many of the best-loved parts to the point where they’re barely recognizable. In fact, it’s a misnomer to call this an adaptation or even an _interpretation_, since so much of it is actually a re-write.
When it works, it works. I’m one of those guys that’s a sucker for the fat tones of a Gibson Les Paul ripping through some good classical baroque piece, backed by an orchestra and a basic rock band. The guitarists (Marc Copely and Thad Debrock) certainly know how to navigate the neck of a guitar, while the drums (Nir Z) thunder out nicely and the bass (Richie Hammond) fills in the bottom solidly. It’s a shame that the producers of this project didn’t trust their audience enough to actually tackle the music in a truer form.
Handel’s Messiah Rocks is a well-intentioned but flawed and misguided effort. ‘Bravo’ for the excellent orchestral passages and for the instrumental orchestra/rock band moments. Too bad they’re only sporadic amidst a general degrading of one of the western world’s great masterpieces. Groups like Procol Harum – with and without an orchestra – have produced admirable performances of classically-influenced work as well as actual classical pieces (“The Blue Danube” and “Albinoni’s Adagio”) without insulting their audience or demeaning the source music. Hopefully, some day a rock band will do the same for Handel’s Messiah, but this wasn’t it…
Bert Saraco 

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