Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Messiah at Handel and Haydn Society

Jesse Levine plays like an angel.  Photo(s): Kyle T. Hemingway.
One of the sillier aspects of our age is the proliferation of pseudo-"rebellions" in the performing arts. As the populace behaves more and more like sheep in the political sphere, ironically enough, they seem to be aping revolutionaries at the theatre.  Sometimes I think there ought to be a word for this phenomenon (I nominate "fauxbellion") - or at least for its more irritating forms, like the new-fangled tendency not to stand during the "Hallelujah Chorus"of Handel's Messiah.  People who yawned at the invasion of Iraq seem, oddly enough, to take this issue close to heart.  Apparently they imagine being couch potatoes throughout the rousing climax to this fantastic oratorio counts as some sort of statement.

But to be blunt, you should stand during the "Hallelujah Chorus."  Not for George II, of course (who, legend has it, began the tradition, perhaps without realizing it).  And not for the Baby Jesus, either - at least not necessarily.

You should stand for Handel.  For artistic greatness.  For recognized artistic greatness, which it doesn't hurt to re-recognize once a year.

And you should stand for the Handel and Haydn Society chorus and orchestra, too, at least when they're in as fine a form as they were last weekend.  Artistic director Harry Christophers once more worked a kind of miracle with their combined forces, conjuring from many of the choruses huge, exquisitely balanced musical experiences that seemed to expand before your eyes like fields of stars.  This year's "For to us a Child is born," for example, was hands-down the greatest performance of this chestnut I've ever heard, ever (even from H&H), and hot on its heels were powerful renderings of the fugue "He trusted in God that He would deliver Him," and, of course, that famous chorus discussed at top.

Meanwhile the orchestra was (mostly) in just as splendid shape - new concert mistress Aisslin Nosky was missing (due to commitments entered into prior to signing with H&H), but the strings sounded just as transparent and robust as they had at their last outing, and on their first appearance (as the trumpets of the angels, up in the balconies of Symphony Hall, at top), the horns sounded wonderful, too - alas, later on, in the most exposed playing of the oratorio ("The trumpet shall sound") things got wobbly - which is always a risk when you're playing a "natural" horn (that is, one with no valves).

As for the soloists - well, as has sometimes happened before, they were a slight puzzlement.  Fine singers all, but rather a motley crew; I still don't understand what Christophers is going for in his line-ups for Messiah.  This time we got a bel canto soprano, the elegant Sarah Coburn, with a glowing bloom at the top of her range; but she didn't have the crispest diction when set against the pinpoint enunciations of the chorus (from her bio, it's clear she's used to singing in Italian).  And Coburn was paired with a countertenor, Lawrence Zazzo - who had an intriguing timbre and sang with mournful fire, but who, like most countertenors, scraped a bit on the low notes of the role.  Meanwhile Tom Randle, who is familiar from many previous H&H outings, seemed to take his time warming up - although his initial diffidence did give way to more assured power as the evening wore on.  Baritone Tyler Duncan, by way of contrast, was powerful from the start, and also boasted an intriguingly complex timbre - but he, too, dicted a bit slackly, mostly because he tended to drop away at the ends of his lines.

To be fair - all had fine moments, and all are interesting singers; it was just hard to see how they fit together as a set, as a statement.  That question only exists, though, because by now the orchestra and chorus have become so cohesive.  So someday, I'm sure (perhaps after years of tinkering), Christophers will find a dream quartet to match the accompanying musical forces he has tuned so finely.

1 comment:

  1. Well yes--as fine performances (chorus and orchestra) as ever seen/heard. And agree with the "motley" crew evaluation. But Tom Randle, when he warms up, is almost beyond evaluation. Keeps his music book closed (except in the duet) and sings to us, to his listeners, brings us in to the pain and the wonder. I cannot recall hearing Jerusalem's iniquity pardoned with such compelling, smooth clarity. So right--agree about the mix--and I do hope Randle is part when Christophers finally gathers a proper set.