Ars Lyrica artistic director Matthew Dirst.
Photo by Pim Lim.

Orpheus Chamber Singers perform as par of Ars Lyrica’s An Easter Messiah on April 2 at the Hobby Center. Photo courtesy of Ars Lyrica.

Orpheus Chamber Singers perform as part of Ars Lyrica’s An Easter Messiah  on April 2 at the Hobby Center. Photo courtesy of Ars Lyrica.

Ars Lyrica wraps up their season with Alexander’s Feast —Or, The Power of Music by G.F. Handel, produced in collaboration with the Bach Society Houston on May 17 at Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center. The program  features soprano Yulia Van Doren, Maria Lin on violin, Yung Hsiang Wang on viola and Becky Baxter on harp. Nancy Wozny visited with Ars Lyrica artistic director Matthew Dirst on Handel, Baroque dance and what’s in store for the 2015/2016 season.

Why is Alexander’s Feast rarely performed? It’s Handel. He’s big. Why don’t we embrace his whole oeuvre?

I’ve been wondering the same thing for years, and this is one of the main reasons why we launched this series of Handel’s oratorios several years ago. We’d done all his early Italian oratorios, and it was time to move on to the larger English-language works. The short answer to your question is that we long ago put “Messiah” up on a pedestal, and kept “Water Music” in the repertory, but ignored practically everything else that Handel ever wrote, including splendid works like Alexander’s Feast.

I find it always surprising that audiences might come to Ars Lyrica to hear something new, or new to them! Apparently, a lot of very old music didn’t come through the centuries. I know you have rescued other works from near obscurity. Do you see that as a part of the Ars Lyrica mission?

Yes, that’s always been a part of our mission, to broaden our public’s horizons and give them something new (that is, old but not well known) to savor.

How is this piece a perfect conclusion to the season?

It’ll be our biggest crowd on the Zilkha Hall stage all year, the most colorful piece, and the most grandiose effects. What’s not to like?

I know that you early music people play well together, and I offer the Houston Early Music Festival as evidence. But do tell how you came to collaborate with the Bach Society Houston?

I’ve done a lot of work with the Bach Society Houston over the years, as guest director, continuo player, organist, etc. Ars Lyrica has had a strong relationship with BSH for years, though this is the first time we’ve done a joint program together.

Jamie Barton performs as part of Ars Lyrica’s Autumn Hunt on Sept. 13 at the Hobby Center. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Jamie Barton performs as part of Ars Lyrica’s Autumn Hunt  on Sept. 13 at the Hobby Center. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Next season looks downright delicious. Talk about your process for selecting the repertory, and how it all comes together under one idea, in this case, “Seasonal Rituals.”

Planning a season is a bit like cooking freestyle, without a recipe and without really knowing the contents of your refrigerator or pantry. But you’re allowed multiple trips to the store! Most seasons, for me, begin with a short “bucket” list of major works or individual artists or organizations we’d like to work with. Over the space of a few months, the puzzle takes shape but always takes interesting and unanticipated turns, depending on the feedback I get from collaborators and the feasibility of various program ideas. I’m delighted that virtually all my “wish list” items for 2015-16 will come to pass, and in some unexpected and wonderful ways!

How exciting to see rising star and HGO studio alum Jamie Barton on the line up. How do you see her sound as a fit for Joseph Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos?

Jamie should be a perfect fit for the Haydn Arianna. She’s always wanted to sing the piece, and I can already hear her beautiful plush voice in it. This should be a sensational season opener.

Let’s talk Messiah. It’s back, and with its cultural baggage! Give me a little background on how the symposium and performance came together.

Yes, this was partly due to my colleague Don Krehbiel, director of the Orpheus Chamber Singers, with whom we’ll be collaborating on Messiah here and in Dallas. Orpheus has never done a Messiah before, and our last time around with this staple was some six seasons ago, so we decided it was time. In addition, the release last year of Michael Marissen’s book Tainted Glory in Handel’s Messiah: The Unsettling History of the World’s Most Beloved Choral Work got me thinking once again about the outsized place this work has in our appreciation of Handel’s oeuvre and Baroque music in general. The issues Michael raises are important for us to think through, especially for a work that has become so routine to our concert life. Our musical routines — or “rituals,” if you will — are of great interest to me as a music historian, so this program and the accompanying symposium gives me the chance to wear both “hats,” so to speak.

New York Baroque Dance Company performs as part of Ars Lyrica’s Homage to the Sun King on Nov. 20 at the Hobby Center. Photo by Julie Lemberger.

New York Baroque Dance Company performs as part of Ars Lyrica’s Homage to the Sun King  on Nov. 20 at the Hobby Center. Photo by Julie Lemberger.

I’m thrilled that Catherine Turocy’s New York Baroque Dance Company will be in town for Homage to the Sun King. Apparently, dance and music were more linked during Jean-Baptiste Lully’s time. It’s great to see Ars Lyrica expand into more theatrical realms, especially dance, but I want to know why you think that it’s important.

To really understand Baroque music, it’s vital to see how Baroque dance works: the geometric choreography, the elegant body carriage, the lightness of the movement all add immeasurably to our appreciation of the whole culture.

Ars Lyrica is turning 17. What’s the view from the helm?

Gracious, are we that old already?How did that happen? It seems like yesterday that I was filling out those articles of incorporation. Ars Lyrica wouldn’t exist without a wide network, a supportive village of music lovers. I’m enormously grateful to a fabulous board, a gifted and hard-working staff, great musician colleagues, and the generous support of patrons and subscribers. We’ve been fortunate to find a supportive environment for our programming in Houston and look forward to many more seasons of great music.