Bringing renewed social relevance, commentary and philanthropy to an annual holiday tradition, National Philharmonic (NatPhil) presents George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” Dec. 17 and 18 at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland and Dec. 23 at Capital One Hall in Tysons, Virginia.
This year’s performance has special meaning because 50% of the proceeds from the performances at Strathmore will go toward the “2nd Century Project” as a fundraiser to restore the historic Scotland African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Zion Church in Montgomery County, Md.
“We’ve been performing Handel’s ‘Messiah’ annually at Strathmore since 2005, except for during COVID,” said Piotr Gajewski, NatPhil’s music director and conductor.
“By design, this year’s performances have an African American cast because of what was uncovered several years ago about George Frideric Handel.”
There is a backstory behind this concert concerning composer Handel and Scotland A.M.E. Zion Church. Gajewski explained that Handel benefitted handsomely from slave trading. It is thought that many of the composer’s works may not have come to fruition if it were not for his revenue from the slave trade.
“So, the question arose for us, what is the proper response to learning this,” said Gajewski, 63. “One possible response would be to simply cancel all music by Handel and be done with it. Or maybe there was another way to consider with this newly uncovered information.”
NatPhil is taking Handel’s history and turning it into a positive to help communities of color, largely those who are descendants of enslaved people. Scotland A.M.E. Zion was chosen.
In 2019 the church was horribly damaged by floods. To save its rich legacy, the church and its Montgomery County allies have launched a multi-phase project to repair, restore and safeguard the building. Information about the 2nd Century Project can be found at scotlandamezion.org. NatPhil’s philanthropic commitment to the church was made before recent news that Scotland A.M.E. Zion was vandalized in November.
Built by hand and opened in 1924 by Black congregants in the Scotland community in Potomac, Md., Scotland A.M.E. Zion is registered as a State Historic Site by the Maryland Historical Trust. Today the church is the only historic building to survive in Maryland’s Scotland community. Even before the challenges faced by the church in recent years, the Scotland community in Potomac did not have running water until the 1970s.
“I urge people to visit the website of Scotland A.M.E. Church because that story is there,” continued Gajewski. “I think they may tell it in gentler words, but the county has not treated that community well, and it’s systematic.”
NatPhil will welcome the Scotland A.M.E. Zion Mass Choir and its director Michael Terry for a pre-concert performance at the Strathmore on Dec. 17 and 18. Patrons are encouraged to attend this free performance in the venue’s lobby area starting one hour before “Messiah.”Tickets for both the Strathmore and Capital One Hall concerts are available online at nationalphilharmonic.org. Children 17 and under can attend National Philharmonic performances for free through their program “All Kids. All Free. All the Time.”