Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Last weekend's performances of Messiah marked the advent of Harry Christophers (above), the new Artistic Director of the Handel and Haydn Society, who's been waiting in the wings for the past few months as other conductors took the podium. For me, however, this Messiah was also something like Christophers's second coming - the first time I heard his work was in the same oratorio two years ago, which I knew immediately was among the best versions I'd ever heard, or would ever hear. I was naturally wondering whether now, ensconced at H&H, he would be able to conjure something like the same miracle, and I'm happy to report he very nearly did, at least insofar as the chorus and period orchestra were concerned.

Alas, the soloists in this year's model, though often wonderful, weren't quite in the same class as the H&H core, so the whole package wasn't tied up with a bow as one might like. But it was still thrilling, and, as the cliché goes, deeply moving (as Messiah should be). And I wasn't the only one who thought so; the few seconds just before the "Hallelujah" chorus is always a clinch moment in Messiah performances - will the audience stand, as tradition dictates (because George II once did), or will it hang back, refuse to participate, and remain cocooned in postmodern distance? You can say it's not a judgment on the performance to remain seated, but it sure feels like one, and there's nothing more awkward than having a few people stand and then think better of it when the rest of the house refuses to rise.

In the Christophers version, however, it was all but impossible to remain seated, at least for those who knew the tradition (and the musical virgins who didn't soon got the idea). But what impelled the two thousand or so in Symphony Hall to rise to their feet? It didn't feel like some hidebound ritual - nor did it feel like the usual 'standing O," which often reflects the audience's feelings about itself rather than the performers (and we weren't clapping, anyhow). To me it seemed like a moment of genuine tribute - to Handel, of course, whose genius brought to such deep and luminous musical fruition the joyous mystery of redemption, but also to Christophers and the assembled forces of H&H, who brought that vision to life with such vibrant clarity. It felt, to be honest, something like an act of solidarity; we understood, and so stood not only in praise but in thanks.

But back to what I didn't like. Mr. Christophers had chosen a countertenor, Daniel Taylor, for the alto parts in the oratorio - a decision much in keeping with current early music practice, and which added a certain spiritual and political dimension to the work itself. One of the things I like about the early music movement is in that in its ranks (unlike the ranks of our local major symphony), being gay is no big deal - and since the sacred music tradition is largely being kept alive by gay people (in sad counterpoint to the bigotry of the institution said music was written for), and since Handel was probably gay, too (and maybe even Jesus was), it's entirely appropriate for issues of gender and identity to echo through a secular rendition of Messiah. Now I've no knowledge of Mr. Taylor's sexual preference, but he had an air of diffident tragedy about him, and I think the gay men and women in the audience (like me) heard a layered sense of poignance in his haunting version of "He was despised and rejected of men."

Still, sometimes Mama just wants a big fat alto, and I have to admit the closeness of Mr. Taylor's tone (lovely as it was) to that of soprano Suzie LeBlanc meant the full breadth of timbre we expect of Messiah was missing from the ensemble singing. Ms. LeBlanc had a transparently pure top, but not quite enough power further down (Mr. Daniels had the same problem, and even fell into his chest voice on his bottom note). And though her diction was excellent, Ms. LeBlanc didn't seem to believe in what she was singing, which is crucial to Messiah - you can't fudge it with the usual operatic emoting. Tenor Tom Randle and especially bass-baritone Matthew Brook were more genuine, and thus more moving; they were here to witness, not emote. True, Randle can be a bit self-dramatizing, and Brook's lower end turned a bit muddy, but I won't soon forget Randle's "Thy rebuke hath broken his heart," or Brook's "We shall all be chang'd."

As for the chorus - it's never sounded better, and that's saying something. Christophers seems to have a special magic with chorales - diction, musicality, variety, he gets it all, and this time the singing was beautifully integrated with the dynamics of the orchestral playing (rather than just "sitting on top of it," as sometimes happens). Some might argue a few of Christophers's decisions were eccentric, and he makes no bones about the fact that he works up his own "edition" of Messiah every year (just as Handel did, btw). But in my book, Christophers gets so much right that's it silly to quibble over details, and at any rate, many of his unusual tweaks proved fascinating in their own right (and he certainly fielded nothing as bizarre as last year's whispered "Hallelujah" chorus). I couldn't help but join in the roars of approval that met the chorus and orchestra on the finale, which also read as a general affirmation of how lucky we are to have Mr. Christophers leading Handel and Haydn.

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