Too Hot Too Handel, the Jazz-Gospel Messiah, is coming back to the Auditorium Theatre in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday on January 16-17. We talked with Bob Christianson, the co-arranger and composer, along with Gary Anderson who first put this show together over 20 years ago. Christianson is a composer, arranger, keyboard player and conductor. He has performed with such artists as Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Jan Hammer, Judy Collins and Dianna Ross just to name a few. He has written and arranged music for such cable television shows as Sex And The City, was nominated for an Emmy for his music for ABC Sports and has scored many series for the Discovery family of networks.
His television credits also include recent Mysteries Of The Museum (Travel Channel) and the iconic “NCAA Basketball Theme” for CBS. He has also scored for Life Is Wild (for the CW) The Equalizer (CBS), Gimme A Break (NBC) and for The Winter Olympics (when it appeared on CBS). Bob has written over 25 award-winning sports themes for CBS, ESPN and ABC.
How did you end up being the co–writer and arranger of Too Hot Too Handel?
Myself, and Gary Anderson, the other arranger and composer, we were approached by Marin Alsop, the musical director of the Baltimore Symphony, back in 1991. This was a pet project of hers. She isn’t a writer, but she knew I was a writer and arranger, and that Gary is probably the best big band jazz arranger in the world. She asked if the two of us would like to do it. That’s the good thing about being young and dumb, you agree to do something and then once you get into it you say to yourself, Oh my God what did I agree to do.
How long did it take for you to decide on the different pieces to write and arrange?
It took me about a half a year and it took Gary about a week because he is like a generous level arranger. We met one December in Marin’s apartment and decided on how we wanted to make it happen—basically deciding on what movements we were going to use from the Messiah and which one of us would arrange each movement. We literally spent two to three hours in Marin’s apartment deciding what we wanted to do and then we didn’t get back together again until we both showed up with the charts the following December.
Listening to Too Hot Too Handel, can our readers tell which movements you arranged and which ones Gary arranged?
When people ask which parts I wrote and which parts Gary wrote I always say, “With only part of my tongue planted in my cheek,” and that “I wrote the shameless pop pieces and R&B pieces and all of the really inside great jazz arrangements are Gary’s.” I joke about that, but basically that is true.
How familiar were you with traditional Messiah before you undertook this task?
We were all very familiar with the Messiah from playing and performing it over the years, so we had a good idea about the music. The thought process was to take basic melodies and lyrics and then for each piece decide if we wanted to stick very close to the harmonic structure and have absolutely no reference to the harmonic structure of the traditional piece. But we tried to write and arrange the different movements so that it kept within the spirit of what the lyrics were saying and what made sense. For example, in terms of the vocal parts, because I am a singer I wrote a lot of the lines completely out with the thought process that then whoever sings the parts can basically use that as a starting point. When singers have performed it they have always basically come up with great stuff.
Did you think this show was going to continue and be performed throughout the country at different venues for over 20 years?
The funny thing is that we both thought this was going to be a one-off performance, basically a one time deal. I mean Marin was able to raise like $5,000 bucks that Gary and I split. It really was a labor of love and believe me I am glad we did it. I am so glad I was able to do it because the piece is like having a kid. You do the best you can and then you push it out the door and hope it continues to grow.
Too Hot Too Handel is coming up January 16 and 17 at the Auditorium Theatre featuring soloists Roderick Dickson, Alfreda Burkes, Karen Marie Richardson and conducted by Suzanne Mallare Acton. How different is the version of Too Hot Too Handel that is performed in Chicago as apposed to the original way you performed it?
First off, Rod is one of my favorite tenors ever! They do it very differently than Marin, which isn’t a bad thing at all. It is a strong piece because you can take drastically different directions on it and the sucker still works. I am proud that people make it their own because that is the whole point. It is very different than the way we first did it. Some pieces that we originally had we took out. We never added anything after the original piece, but we did cut down. We cut whole sections out of things because it worked better. A couple of things we took out because it was running too long.
Where was Too Hot Too Handel first performed?
The first performance was in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. We actually did it there for the first three or four years and then the rest of the years we did it at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
How did you rehearse the show before the first performance and what did you think about it once you heard it?
Well, Gary and I both played in the orchestra when we first did it so we didn’t really have a chance to sit and listen to it. I was playing B3 organ and he was playing bari sax I believe, and we were both too worried about getting our parts right than to think about what it sounded like. He was looking at his charts and asking then saying, Wow I wrote that? I better practice that! The funny thing was that the second rehearsal we had for the piece was in the rehearsal studio in Manhattan, and for the first 10 years we did it we performed it in New York, and Morgan State choir came up and they were the choir. I don’t know if you know anything about the Morgan State Choir, but they are like the best college choir ever. Anyway, they came up to a rehearsal before the first performance and had their parts memorized within an inch of their lives and made zero mistakes. Meanwhile, we are in the rehearsal room with the top studio musicians in New York and we are making mistakes left and right and here is this bunch of college kids standing behind us just showing us up big time. It was pretty funny.
How was the piece received when it was first performed?
One of the funniest things Marin said was after our first review from The New York Times. It was not kind; they didn’t like it at all. At one point she turned to me and told me “Watch, every year The New York Times will come to listen to it and they will hate it a little bit less.” Sure enough about 3 years ago we did it with the Baltimore Orchestra and 300 New York School kids at Carnegie Hall. It was an incredible experience, mostly for the kids, and we got and absolute total rave review from the Times. I turned to her and said, “See it only took 20 years for them to come around.”
Why do you think Too Hot Too Handel is still going strong after all of these years?
It has a lot to do with the energy onstage, and who the soloists are and who’s in the rhythm section—if the people on the stage are showing commitment to the piece, and joy, it is going to be infectious. You cannot watch Rod Dixon perform and not get into it. It is a success because of what everyone brings to the party.