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Julia Tai will conduct Handel's 'Messiah' for Boise Philharmonic

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Boise Philharmonic, Julia Tai, 123rf
Julia Tai will conduct Handel's Messiah December 16 and 17 at Cathedral of the Rockies.

Julia Tai is one of the most dynamic young conductors on stages across the planet, conducting in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Mexico and here in the Northwest – Seattle. Plus, she's the music director of the Missoula Symphony Orchestra and much more.

Tai will be conducting the Boise Philharmonic for this year's holiday performances of Messiah, the 281-year-old oratorio penned by George Frideric Handel.

“This piece really has everything,” said Tai. “It has that beautiful, calming music that heals the soul and then it has the excitement of the arias that really would uplift and excite an audience.”

Prior to the December 16 and 17 BPO performances at the Cathedral of the Rockies, Tai visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the search for something new in Messiah, which was first performed as an Easter offering but has since become a soundtrack to the Christmas season.

“I think we all need the music right now after what we've been through the past couple of years, to come and enjoy this wonderful piece of music with the audience.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. We are fortunate to spend some time this morning with Julia Tai. The Seattle Times describes her as “poised, yet passionate.” She is one of the most dynamic young conductors on stages across the planet, conducting in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Mexico, and here in the northwest - Seattle. Plus, she's the music director of the Missoula Symphony Orchestra and much more. We are excited to say that Julia Tai will be conducting the Boise Philharmonic for this year's holiday performances of Handel's Messiah. Julia Tai Good morning.

JULIA TAI: Good morning.

PRENTICE: Well, Smithsonian Magazine and I love this quote they wrote “”Woe to the concert hall in the US or Britain that fails to schedule Handel's Messiah around the holidays.” Our expectations are pretty high. We love listening to Messiah because it's very difficult to explain, isn't it? It is recognizable, and yet it is something that we embrace and we're always looking for something special. And I'm curious about you in that exploration of meeting expectations, yet looking for the fresh, the excitement in that moment.

TAI: I love Messiah. It's always one of my favorite pieces of music. So, every time I get to do it, I'm really excited. And Messiah. Yes, it's a very familiar piece to most people, but it's also an amazing athletic piece for the singers, not just the soloists, but also choir. And so even though you've heard it so many times, every time a different person, different choir, different soloists do them, it's going to sound fresh and totally different. It's sort of like watching the Olympics where the athletics have to do all the back flips. And it's going to be a fantastic evening.

PRENTICE: We should note that this year's performance will be presented in the Cathedral of the Rockies in Boise, the glorious house of worship. And you can't help but think that the architects dreamt of having something like this, a full orchestra in a chorus performing the Messiah. Can I assume that you draw inspiration from something so unique?

TAI: Certainly a different space…especially a magnificent church like the Cathedral of the Rockies would certainly enhance the experience of this music that is written so long ago. But it's fresh every year.

PRENTICE: So long ago. I'm fascinated by George Handel, the son of a of a surgeon, a celebrated surgeon in Germany, who insisted that his son become a lawyer or a surgeon, but it was a family friend who heard him playing the organ at the age of 11. And the rest is history. In a little bit of research, I was so pleasantly surprised to hear about. In spite of the fact of his known temperament, the premiere of his Messiah was in Dublin, and the proceeds of the premiere production went to the local prison and the prison hospital. And he did that so many times over the years, sending proceeds to hospitals or orphanages. My goodness.

TAI: He's really a man of theater. He's considered at the time one of the most famous and celebrated composers. And the fact that he composed for 30 years only opera. He was fascinated by opera, actually studied in Italy for a little bit. And he wrote primarily opera for 30 years before he turned to oratorios. And so that kind of gave him all the facility, the compositional technique for writing for a theater work, for a really dramatic work in the Messiah, and it was half his desire to venture into oratorio. Also, half of the circumstances that theater after a while was his own theater company wasn't doing very well. And then he turned to kind of the concert stage and that brought him so much fame and fortune, and he was sharing some of those fortunes with the unfortunate.

PRENTICE: Let's talk about music taking over someone's life at a young age. In your biography, do I have this right? You began playing violin at the age of four.

TAI: I did. So, the story behind it is that my mother was a high school music teacher and she also conduct a church choir since before I was born. So, I always said I went to rehearsals before I was born. I had no choice. She took me there. So, every Saturday night she has church choir practice, and she wanted my sister and I to learn an instrument so she could take us to rehearsals. So instead of miming finding babysitters, we all accompany her at choir practice. So, my sister studied the cello, I studied the violin, and I started when I was four and a half. And I think six months into it, my mom was taking us to accompany the choir. So yeah, just always been around lots of music.

PRENTICE: And piano at the age of eight.

TAI: So, I grew up in Taiwan and there's a wonderful music education system where you could they take 30 students every. You're from all over the city to get into a music kind of a conservatory training program. And we have private lessons and history, theory or skills. Orchestra. Choir. We did the gamut of all music training since I was nine years old. And so in order to get in, you also have to have some keyboard abilities, so scales and harmonies on the piano. So, I also started studying piano, and my mom taught piano at home for a long time, so I didn't study with her, but she sent me to one of her friends. It's easier now I'm finding out with my own daughter.

PRENTICE: How old is your daughter?

TAI: She's seven.

PRENTICE: Does she lean toward music?

TAI: Yes. She loves playing and singing. She's in the choir. She's taking piano lessons. Thank goodness she loves it.

PRENTICE: I'd be remiss if I did not mention that Julia Taylor is also the conductor and co-artistic director of the Seattle Modern Orchestra, which champions the music of today. So can you talk a bit about that bridge over the years looking for the new but also looking for something new in the classics?

TAI: So, I think as a musician we love playing those masterworks like Handel's Messiah or the Beethoven symphonies, the Brahms symphonies. But I'm also always looking for what kind of music will present the music of our time and the music that was written by people I know or that represent the circumstances of our society right now. And that has kind of prompt me to think that it is also the not just my interest, but the responsibility as a musician and conductor to find the voices of our time and give composers opportunity to compose some of this music that represent us. Because 100 years from now, people are going to be looking for music that that give them a glimpse of what 2022 is like. So, I've always find that fascinating. And also, just the thrill of working on a brand-new piece of music know I'm sure the person who, while Handel premiered his own Messiah, but, you know, the first time you discover a masterpiece like that, it's so exciting. And with the old masterworks, you get less of that because we're so familiar with it. And with a brand-new piece of music, you have no idea what it was going to sound like, what it will look like. Sometimes when you commissioned a composer, you don't know what kind of scores you're going to get, and it comes with like a 30-page manual of different notations or different sounds that the instruments can make that have not been done before. So that's always really interesting and exciting to me. And I found that because of my experience of working with living composers and kind of peeking into how they compose a piece of music, what their creative process is, that made me understand old music more. Now, when I do Handel or Mozart, I, I find that kind of freshness that I have learned from doing brand new music that I bring to an old piece of masterwork.

PRENTICE: You know, this time of year we open our hearts a little bit more to music that just speaks to us. And often over the years, no matter what our current relationship is with our faith. And that comes and goes as the years go by. What is constant through the years…. Is this music. Can you imagine the millions of people, maybe billions of people over the years, that this music - and I'm thinking of Handel's Messiah in particular - has spoken to and has filled their hearts at a time when our hearts are so vulnerable? It has such great power for us.

TAI: This piece really has everything -that beautiful, calming music that heals the soul and then it has the excitement of the arias that really would uplift and excite an audience, I think. It does. I think we all need the music right now after what we've been through the past couple of years, to come and enjoy this wonderful piece of music with the audience, you know, music. I've always said it's a very communal experience because you listen to the same piece but with different people and it can be a different experience.

PRENTICE: And is there anything more communal than Messiah? Yes. And to be in each other's company again and this is going to be rather extraordinary again at the Cathedral of the Rockies, December 16th and 17th, the Boise Philharmonic and Julia Tai will be conducting.

TAI: Thank you. Thanks for having me. I'm really excited to visit Boise and work with the Philharmonic.

PRENTICE: Safe travel to you. Happy holidays and we will see you at the Cathedral of the Rockies for Handel's Messiah.

TAI: Thank you very much. Happy holidays to you, too.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

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