Sunday, November 27, 2016

Handel + Haydn Society Presents Handel's "Messiah" at Symphony Hall - Hallelujah!

Boston can boast many holiday traditions. There is skating on the Frog Pond at Boston Common. There are the Christmas Revels. Of course there is the iconic Boston Ballet version of the beloved "Nutcracker." But the granddaddy of them all is the tradition of the Handel + Haydn Society singing Handel's "Messiah" backed by full orchestra playing period instruments. On December 25th, 1818, H+H gave the first performance of "Messiah" in America. In 1854, the Society began the annual holiday tradition of singing the oratorio at or near Christmas.

I have a personal history with H+H and "Messiah."  When I was around 10 years old - when dinosaurs still roamed the earth - I was taken by family members to hear H+H sing the annual offering of the famed work. A distant relative was singing in the chorus at the time, Ann White Adamson. I recall being enthralled, and this piece of transcendent music has been one of my favorites over the years - both to sing and to listen to. I had not heard the H+H perform for many years, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to hear them on Friday evening.  I was not disappointed. Sometimes we as adults tend to over-hype childhood memories.  In this case, the present iteration of H+H exceeded my boyish memories.

The concert was superb. Harry Christophers' conducting was a master class in precision, passion, and subtlety. He led the orchestra and chorus in nuanced interpretations of tempos and dynamics, blending the voices and period instruments that filled the hall with heavenly sound befitting the subject matter of the piece. There was a perfect balance between the 30 voices in the chorus and a similar number of instrumentalists in the orchestra. Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky led the string section with a steady hand. Principal Trumpeter Jesse Levine stood out in the soaring "The Trumpet Shall Sound."

The four soloists all came with worldwide reputations. They clearly know and love this Handel piece, treating it with respect and dignity.

Soprano Joelle Harvey was the very essence of professionalism. Her clear tones and nuanced interpretations of the text stood out. Each note was clearly articulated, and I was able to understand each carefully enunciated word. Her rendition of "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth" is one of the best I have heard. As she sang, she addressed herself to each section of the hall, as if to say, "I am telling an important story here; I do not want any of you to miss it."

Tenor Colin Balzer brought a mastery of dynamics that was impressive. With the opening notes of "Comfort Ye My People," I knew we were in good hands with this tenor. And "Every Valley Shall Be Exalted" was a revelation. Mr. Balzer showed great vocal control in the sustained notes in the phrase "And the rough places plain."

Baritone Sumner Thompson's rich voice filled the hall when the text called for power, and he decrescendoed to an audible whisper when appropriate, such as the phrase "And the Gentiles shall come to thy light." His voice soared in the aforementioned "The Trumpet Shall Sound."

Countertenor Robin Blaze has an impressive list of international achievements in his bio, yet I found his performance to be spotty on Friday evening. In "But Who May Abide The Day of His Coming?" he lacked the vocal power in the lower parts of his range to project his voice to all parts of Symphony Hall. I was sitting in an acoustically fortuitous part of the hall midway back in the Orchestra section, yet I had a difficult time hearing him over the orchestra. The melismatic sections seemed to melt into a muddy stream of sound, without a clear articulation of each rapid note. On the other hand, when the music called for him to use the upper reaches of his range, his voice was beautifully clear. This was especially true in the aria he shared with Ms. Harvey "He Shall Feed His Flock/Come Unto Him."

The chorus was simply magnificent throughout. They have clearly been well chosen, well trained and well directed. The blend of the voices in the ensemble sections was exquisite, and each section carried their part with clarity and beauty. The blend was most evident during the a capella sections of "Since By Man Came Death."

The audience responded enthusiastically both at the end of Part the First and at the conclusion of the concert. This is a tradition that continues to delight.  There is one more opportunity on Sunday afternoon to hear this year's version of "Messiah." There are also additional concert programs scheduled over the next few months.  If H+H is not already on your list of cultural and entertainment options, I encourage you to treat yourself to one of their performances. They are world class.

Handel and Haydn Website



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