Too many still think of classical music as something that “other” people do. Chris Whittaker, conductor of the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra, is attempting to change that—one concert at a time. The York, Pa.-born musician explained, “Classical and music and great art is accessible to people. Too often in my profession, classical music can be seen as just for the rich, so having access to a wonderful performing space at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, I thought we could really bring in a very wide and diverse community to come and experience this kind of music together. Not only for lifelong classical music listeners but people for who may not think of themselves as people who listen to Beethoven’s symphonies.”
Whittaker and his orchestra are gearing up for their Dec. 15 holiday concert at United Palace, which will feature an updated version of the 1741 classic oratorio, “Messiah,” by George Frideric Handel. This particular version was created in the early 1990s by Marin Alsop, currently music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Called “Too Hot To Handel,” Whittaker describes it as, “a complete reimagining of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ for the 21st century.”
He explained, “It takes the melodies and ideas from Handel’s original oratorio and recasts it through a jazz and gospel and Latin lens.”
The production will involve approximately 100 musicians, including soprano Angela Birchett, alto Yancy Garcia and tenor Anwar Robinson. Attendees can also look forward to a huge choir, an orchestra, a saxophone and brass jazz rhythm section and four jazz and gospel soloists.
“It’s really a colorful, amazing piece!” Whittaker stated. “We like to say it’s Handel’s ‘Messiah’ like you’ve never heard it before. If people come, they won’t be disappointed!”
In today’s society, the benefits of not only a live experience but also a shared live experience is often lost on many of us. It’s these types of experiences that hold the power to build bridges between disparate people thrown together in an urban environment. Whittaker attempts to bring that feeling to the residents of Upper Manhattan.
“I want to provide the opportunity to bring more people into the experience of listening to great live music together,” said Whittaker. “Part of the mission of our group is for the community to take that journey together. At the end of the day, having those moments of togetherness with live art is something that enriches people’s lives in a way that they can’t find on YouTube.”
Whittaker feels there isn’t any real reason for some people’s hesitancy to indulge in classical music. He said, “You can enjoy a great meal without knowing how to cook it. You don’t need permission to love it, and you don’t need permission to not love it. The thing about classical music is it’s about giving yourself the space to go on a journey and be with your thoughts. You have to be patient and be willing to sit with a piece for 10 minutes or 20 minutes. Maybe you’ll tune out at some point. Maybe your mind will wander, but that’s OK. It’s about letting time slow down and experiencing a story told in notes, told in sound.”
Whittaker is so serious about this mission that there is a deliberate and surprising casualness at Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra events. “We have a lot of young families who come and bring their kids,” he said. “Our seating is relaxed and they can step out or leave if the kids get restless. People can come and expose their kids to classical music and leave when they need to.” The Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra is also a destination for music lovers who can’t or don’t wish to travel to downtown venues for their symphonic fix. Whittaker shares a story about a couple married for 60 years who frequent Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra concerts. “They used to be subscribers to Carnegie Hall,” he said “But since they are now more advanced in age and our concert series has become their musical home.”
The couple have even sent the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra a number of letters expressing their gratitude.
Tickets for “Too Hot To Handel” start at $15 and can be purchased at unitedpalace.org.