Matthew Halls has been primarily known as an early-music specialist for much of his career, serving as music director of the Oregon Bach Festival for five years and leading the American stage premiere of Handel’s Amadigi di Gaula at the Central City (Colo.) Opera in 2011. But even in his 20s, he mixed in other repertoire, conducting Bach in the morning with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, and Britten or Verdi in the afternoon as chorus master with the Netherlands Opera.
“Like quite a few musicians,” Halls said from his home in Toronto, “in the early part of my career, I tended to spend so much time doing one particular thing that people began to associate me with just that [early music]. I was always a little bit uncomfortable with that idea, because there had always been a number of other things going on in my musical life.”
In recent years, the British conductor has made even more of a point of broadening his focus, leading an array of mainstream ensembles such as the Dallas Symphony and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in repertoire ranging from Bach and Mozart to Olivier Messiaen and James MacMillan.
That said, when Halls makes his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut, he will return to his early-music roots, leading Handel’s celebrated Baroque oratorio, Messiah, in concerts Dec. 20-23. The CSO will be the third of the so-called Big Five orchestras he has guest conducted in the United States, along with ensembles in Cleveland and Philadelphia.
“I feel enormously privileged to be working with those sort of musicians,” Halls said. “These are some of the world’s most exceptional orchestras, and to spend a week with them and learn about what they do is just incredibly rewarding. I’m always humbled by the experience.”
The soloists for these performances will be soprano Amanda Forsythe, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Nicholas Phan and baritone Joshua Hopkins, who also is making his CSO debut. They were chosen during conversations between Halls and the CSO’s artistic administration. “So, yes, I did have input, and I’m very happy with the solo team that we’re using in Chicago.”
Halls typically conducts two back-to-back weeks of performances of Messiah every December with different orchestras in North America or Europe. “Luckily, I adore the piece and never tire of performing it,” he said. “It does come around every year, and it wouldn’t be quite the same without it.”
Guest conductors of Messiah in recent CSO seasons have included Bernard Labadie, former music director of Les Violins du Roy, a well-respected, period-style chamber orchestra in Québec that he established. For his interpretation, Labadie tried to instill at least a partial period approach to the work, which means a lighter, more transparent sound with considerably less vibrato and brisker tempos.
As someone with a significant history with period-instrument ensembles, Halls acknowledges that he will try to bring some of these same qualities to his take on Messiah, including energetic tempos and a vibrant buoyancy, even if he quibbles a bit with the terminology. “I’m always quite keen to be honest, and to say that the most likely thing that is going to happen is that I’m going to do the version of Messiah that I know and that I like,” he said. “People might like to try and pass it off as the authentic or period-influenced or use those sort of words, but I just don’t really think in those terms.”
At the same time, Halls said, he believes it is important to meet any orchestra half-way, to take into account its style and tendencies. “For sure, I come from the same sort of camp or stable as Bernard Labadie, whose work I admire greatly, but then I also spend a lot of my time these days doing more symphonic repertoire with modern symphony orchestras. So I’m probably somewhere right on the fence in the middle these days.”