Hallelujah’s rings through The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall for the National Symphony Orchestra’s annual Messiah, written by George Frideric Handel in 1742. The orchestra is accompanied by four decorated soloists – international stars of opera – and the overwhelming sound of the The Choral Arts Society of Washington Chorus. They are a volunteer choir, which is misleading because most members dedicate as much time as a full-time job and it shows. They bring well over 150 singers to complement the 100-person orchestra onstage. This massive production is led by conductor Rossen Milanov, on loan from the Orquesta Sinfonica del Principado de Asturias in Spain, who shapes these disparate groups into a powerful whole with a huge grin on his face.
Everyone, of course, waits for the ‘Hallelujahs,’ but before the big sound, there are hours of the lyrical, precise melodies that Handel excelled in. This year, the NSO is doing a unique production. The original was rescored by Sir Eugene Aynsley Goossens in 1959. He added over 100 pages and scored it for a full orchestra.
Where does Handel begin and Goossens end? It’s impossible to say – the piece does feel bigger, more moving if it is possible, than Handel’s always-careful melodies, but in the end it doesn’t matter.
Handel himself derived the work from the Biblical stories, using Bible verses for his libretto, and often retooled the piece himself depending on what kind of orchestra or choir he could get to perform it. It continues to be a living piece, secular music that tells a sacred story, full of beautiful and clever duets between orchestra and singers and of course, the overwhelming choruses.
Tenor Russell Thomas opens the recitative with “Comfort Ye,” with utter conviction, followed by the chorus singing of the glory of the lord with soaring trumpets accompanying sopranos in a perfect marriage of instrument and voice that continues throughout the evening.
Renown Bass-baritone Iain Paterson begins with “Thus Saith the Lord of Hosts” with the clarion voice of a born storyteller. This is an oratorio or you could say, a stealthy opera. It dramatizes the birth and resurrection of Jesus in a concert setting.
Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Deshong sings “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” and shares a beautiful duet with concertmaster and first violinist Nurit Bar-Josef.
“For Unto Us a Child is Born” is the highlight of the first act as the whole chorus sings a round of soaring arpeggios almost as joyous as the much more famous Hallelujah chorus.
Another highlight is soprano Leah Crocetto, who sings the Christmas story, “There were shepherds abiding in the field” with an unbelievably powerful voice. The Book of Luke has never sounded better. You wait almost an hour into the opera to hear her and she is well worth it. She also has the unenviable task of following the Hallelujah chorus because there’s a third act to the drama and when she sings “Christ is risen,” it is with almost as much sound as the entire chorus behind her moments before.
But of course, the highlight is the Hallelujah Chorus. Standing in the gorgeous hall, decked for Christmas with wreaths and trees around the seats, listening to the cymbals crash and the sopranos soar higher and higher and higher, there are few other moments like it in music.
For all the dramatic moments, this is a very happy score with so many beautiful, moving pieces from every part of the orchestra, the choir, and the soloists. Purists will get their fix and everyone else can enjoy a holiday tradition filled with depth and talent instead of saccharine cheer. Buy now as opening night and closing now has already sold out.
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with one 20-minute intermission.
Handel’s Messiah plays through December 22, 2014 at the Concert Hall at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 416-4600, or purchase them online.