Artistic Interpretation

The Civic Chorale’s new music director brings youthful verve to Handel’s “Messiah”

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Most people know the “Hallelujah Chorus,” George Handel’s spiritual masterpiece from 1741, and the final movement of his “Messiah” oratorio. Based on passages from the King James Bible, Handel composed one of the most joyful, euphonious choral pieces in history – and the Rhode Island Civic Chorale and Orchestra (RICCO) has performed this Christmastime favorite for years.

“There are just layers and layers of meaning,” says Joshua Rohde, the Chorale’s new music director. “It is a religious piece, but I think people of all denominations – or lack thereof – identify with this piece of music. In many ways, this is a song about comfort and joy, and even if you don’t share the theological beliefs, there’s so much to appreciate.”

The 32-year-old conductor has been well received at the Chorale, partly for his bright, youthful personality. A Midwest native, Joshua studied both cello performance and civil engineering at the University of Minnesota. Like many before him, Joshua found himself attuned to both fields. “There’s a lot of research about how math and music have similar traits,” he notes. Not surprisingly, he now teaches music – and directs four different choirs – at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which is known primarily as an engineering school.

Still, it was music that won out. Joshua earned a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Boston University, where he concentrated in choral conducting and sacred music. After a decorated career in Massachusetts, Joshua was recommended to RICCO; the previous director, Dr. Edward Markward, was stepping down after 32 fruitful years, and Joshua seemed like an invigorating replacement.

“[Dr. Markward] had a really great rapport with the community and the chorale,” says Joshua. “I think the chorale was eager to try something new. There isn’t an expectation, like, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it.’”

As the holidays approach, RICCO regulars look forward to Joshua’s direction of “The Messiah” at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. This one-night performance is also notable, as it is dedicated to Nick Cardi, the late furniture seller and Ocean State celebrity. The Cardi family has been a longtime supporter of local arts, including the Chorale.

After nearly 300 years of performance, it’s hard for the layman to imagine a “new” version of Handel’s classic, but Joshua says otherwise. Among seasoned singers, minute manipulations of tempo and phrasing can radically affect the final recital. Says the maestro: “It’s all open to interpretation.” “The Messiah” takes place December 7.