Review: Handel’s ‘Messiah’ by NSO at The Kennedy Center

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Messiah is perhaps the best known of the German-born but London-settled composer George Frideric Handel. Profoundly religious, the three-part Oratorio moves from the prophecy of Christ to his death and resurrection.

For this Christmas season, it’s the perfect event to solemnly rejoice the birth of a savior.

The National Symphony Orchestra’s yearly production of the classic is always an area favorite.

And this year’s show, with conductor Laurence Cummings leading the way, is sure to continue the applause.

Laurence_Cummings. Photo by Anton Säckl.

Lively and energetic, Cummings keeps the emotions of the orchestra high. His personage alone animates the piece.

Tenor James Kryshak starts the prophecy with aria “Comfort ye my People”. He has a straightforward approach, strong and dignified, followed by bass-baritone Douglas Williams’ rendition of “Thus Saith the Lord of Hosts”.

Both singers set the stage for the birth of Jesus, brought to dramatic life by countertenor Christopher Ainslie. Of all the voices, his voice is the most memorable, in part because, in a production that minimalized spectacle, his attention to the details of comportment captivates the audience. His “O thou that tellest good tidings of Zion” lets the crowd know that they are in for an evening of jubilation.

Joélle Harvey, the soprano, introduces the baby Jesus with the beautifully conceived “And the angel said unto them”. Her soaring voice fills the hall with tenderness.

But make no mistake, it’s the choral pieces in Messiah that truly fill the heart, and the University of Maryland’s Concert Choir fills our hearts to overflowing. Rising in unison with all the drama of a flock of angels, their “Glory to God in the highest” astounds both the eyes and ears.

Later, right before the crowd favorite “Hallelujah”,  tenor Kryshak delivers a devastating

Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron;
Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel

The the audience stands and peers over the thousand strong Concert Hall crowd as the chorus trumpets

He shall reign for ever and ever.

The Oratorio’s 3rd part deals with the resurrection of Christ. More personal and intimate, Harvey and Williams deliver their tender, all-too-human tales of mystery and faith. Not until the chorus erupts with splendor, sounding “Worthy is the Lamb,” does the supernaturalness of the piece return. Then the chorus’s voices lift the Hall’s ceiling.

And silence descends.

The audience sits in that quiet, taking in the sacredness of the piece, when suddenly, by perfect understatement, the chorus continues with a whispered, staccato “amen.”

And I could not help but giggle, before more “amen(s)” followed, each one ripe with more wonder and glory than the last.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with an intermission.

Messiah plays through December 18, 2016 at The Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600/(800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

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