So deeply screwed-up was the Covid Christmas of 2020 that I spent the entire vacation numbing myself with nothing however Beethoven and an unfathomably gradual remix of Wham!’s “Final Christmas.” The following yr marked a slight enhance in detectable public merriment ranges — however most of us remained extra involved with the arrival of delta and omicron than Donner and Blitzen.
They are saying you possibly can’t drive the Christmas spirit. To that I say: Watch me. Decided to really feel one thing festive this yr, I made a decision to go all in on the “Messiah,” attending three full performances of Handel’s 1741 masterpiece by three orchestras in a single week: the New York Philharmonic (Dec. 13 at David Geffen Corridor), the Nationwide Symphony Orchestra (Dec. 15 on the Kennedy Heart) and the Nationwide Philharmonic (Dec. 17 at Strathmore).
That’s practically 8½ hours of concentrated exaltation!
Even within the fingers of essentially the most succesful gamers, the acquainted taste and heft of the “Messiah” — a sprawling three-part oratorio alternating between recitatives and airs sung by 4 soloists and punctuated by colourful choral episodes — can land with all of the delicacy of a fruitcake.
Which means, in a number of facets, maintaining the mass (each senses) of the “Messiah” afloat is a gaggle venture: The orchestra and refrain should transfer between celebratory buoyancy and celestial bombast; the soloists should thread themselves seamlessly by its silken surfaces; even the viewers should hear with just a little extra devotion than regular. To not point out standing by the “Hallelujah” — a convention allegedly began by King George II in 1743, probably the results of His Majesty snapping awake.
The New York Philharmonic first carried out music from the “Messiah” as particular person arias in 1854 and 1855. It was the rival New York Symphony that carried out the entire piece first in 1878 — and that may ultimately merge with the Phil in 1928. Performances of the “Messiah” by the orchestra had been sporadic by a lot of the twentieth century, till 2002 when it returned and has endured as an annual staple.
This yr marks the orchestra’s 53rd run of the “Messiah” and the primary in its newly refashioned David Geffen Corridor. And whereas conductor Masaaki Suzuki (founding father of Bach Collegium Japan) introduced seemingly boundless vitality to the rostrum and shimmering element out of the orchestra, he additionally struggled to develop the piece to fill the corridor. There was a faintness to this primary efficiency of the run (which concluded Dec. 17) — a closeness that typically learn as too cautious. This was usually remediated by the Handel and Haydn Society Refrain, 35 sturdy, who seized every verse with thrilling assault and illuminated the music with hearth and drive by the night.
Every soloist discovered a compelling path by the music: Soprano Sherezade Panthaki soared in her Half III air (“If God be for us, who will be towards us?”), Swedish tenor Leif Aruhn-Solén lent distinctly steely colours to his invocation of the iron rod and Cree-Métis baritone Jonathon Adams, who identifies as two-spirit (a nonbinary identifier used inside some Indigenous communities), impressed with a barrel-round sound and an arresting presence — particularly of their Half III dialogue with Matthew Muckey’s pristine trumpet.
Countertenor Reginald Mobley was a specific spotlight — his tone wealthy and beneficiant, simmering and extreme in his low register and pearl-smooth within the highs. It’s not usually you get a countertenor singing this half — although the legendary Russell Oberlin sung it with the Phil in 1956, ’58 and ’59 (in addition to twice with the Nationwide Symphony). Mobley introduced beautiful precision and expression to his airs in Half I (“Thou artwork gone up on excessive”) and Half II (“He was despised”), the latter revealing his abilities as a storyteller in music.
Because the New York Phil feels out this stunning new house, it would take into account methods to acoustically enhance a Baroque-ified Phil (of simply 32 gamers) — maybe by a few of its adjustable panels and baffles. When you can think about it, even the seventh-inning stretch of the “Hallelujah” appeared considerably shrunken within the wash.
Two nights later, traces from the New York Phil efficiency had been blinking in my head like strands of lights because the Nationwide Symphony Orchestra took the festively bedecked Kennedy Heart stage with the Choral Arts Society of Washington — an 80-40 cut up that consumed the obtainable house.
My final encounter with the “Messiah” right here was in 2021, when Gianandrea Noseda led the NSO, the College of Maryland Live performance Choir and soloists from the Washington Nationwide Opera’s Cafritz Younger Artists program. This system was constrained in variety of performers and restrained to only “Half I” (paired with Bach’s “Magnificat”). Diminished as this presentation was, it marked a return to a piece that the NSO has carried out yearly since 1953. (This most up-to-date run of the “Messiah,” which concluded Dec. 18, marks 254 whole performances.)
No matter vitality may need been saved up over the pandemic years was duly unleashed by visitor conductor Fabio Biondi, who introduced a windswept vitality to his process. Stooping and springing, Biondi’s animated steering of the “Messiah” infused it with contemporary vitality — the violins and violas digging in exhausting by the evening, as if the gamers had been making an attempt to spark kindling.
Like Noseda, Biondi is aware of tips on how to negotiate vitality and magnificence whereas permitting neither to slip. This was a “Messiah” on hearth — with a refrain that felt as flamable because the orchestra. They delivered a smoldering fugue in Half II (“He trusted in God”) and simmering stress in Half III (“Since by man got here loss of life”). However greater than another “Messiah” I took on this month, the refrain right here felt like a real counterpart to the orchestra — a manifestation of divine symmetry.
The NSO’s crew of soloists, all making their debuts with the orchestra, had been additionally very good — the attractive fullness of tenor John Matthew Myers was a particular deal with, as was the unrelenting gusto of powerhouse bass-baritone Neal Davies. Soprano Liv Redpath and mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig every gave beguiling turns — Redpath providing an particularly lithe studying of “Rejoice vastly” that had me rejoicing vastly.
Not listed on this system had been the three or 4 neighbors round me within the viewers who had been staging their very own unwittingly audible personal performances. Grinchily, I sneered at first — however then caught myself and smiled politely. The “Messiah,” I intoned like a prayer, is a gaggle venture.
By the point I made it to Strathmore on Saturday for the final “Messiah” on my checklist and the primary of the Nationwide Philharmonic’s string of performances (which concludes Friday at Capital One Corridor), stretches of music from the earlier evenings had been swirling and overlapping in my reminiscence — a mega-chorus singing a macro-fugue.
Conductor Stan Engebretson gave the impression to be going through a realer model of the identical predicament — a 106-member Nationwide Philharmonic Chorale (for whom Engebretson is creative director) loomed within the chorister seats over the 34-piece orchestra, which typically felt caught within the shadow of an enormous crashing wave.
This top-heavy remedy of the “Messiah” isn’t unusual — that centerpiece “Hallelujah” can justify nearly any degree of choral disproportion. However rising above the crash and froth of such an enormous refrain does current a problem for the musicians. Add to this the absence of harpsichord on this orchestration — and thus, the dearth of that particular timbral tinsel that helped brighten the perimeters throughout the different two orchestras.
Nonetheless, the NatPhil fought exhausting to remain heard — discovering beautiful management in concertmaster Laura Colgate, who introduced depth and intimacy to her traces, in addition to limber expressiveness that licensed the remainder of the gamers to lean in.
This “Messiah,” nonetheless, was all in regards to the soloists — which even after every week of sturdy performances felt like one thing of a dream staff. Soprano Kearstin Piper Brown and mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford had been splendid surprises to me — the previous’s tone brilliant however burnished, the latter’s wealthy and opulent. The reliably stable tenor Norman Shankle was in significantly high quality type, lending grace and humanity to traces that may simply land like bulletins.
Insofar as one can steal the present of the “Messiah,” the commanding baritone Jorell Williams did so — a rock-solid singer with a eager understanding of his personal expressive depths. However maybe most pleasant was observing the seen pleasure the singers took in listening to one another — like just a little present alternate onstage. And this time I’ll have joined the under-the-breath refrain.
In enterprise this “Messiah” marathon, I’m fairly positive I felt one thing past the customary palette of concert-going pleasures. I didn’t come to any essential dedication in regards to the one true “Messiah” (as clickable a headline as that may have made), however like recurring goals, these repeat listens blurred into their very own vague delight — a Christmassy spirit, if you’ll. (Halleloo!)
You could possibly really feel it within the foyer after every efficiency as we milled towards the exits, strangers holding the doorways, smiling and singing little snatches of the oratorio to one another — everybody oddly charged up for 11 p.m. Completed accurately, the “Messiah” can fill your reminiscence with wonderful music; however maybe extra critically, it will probably additionally high off your coronary heart’s provide of goodwill — the one present that’s higher whenever you return it.