At the outset, I will confess a bias: I much prefer listening to baroque pieces played in the style, and on the scale, of the time in which they were composed. Handel’s 1741 oratorio Messiah was originally scored for 2 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, 2 violins, viola, and basso continuo (cello, double bass, and harpsichord), with four vocal soloists and choir of modest size.
Realistically, however, if one is going to mount Messiah in a space the size of the 2400-seat Kennedy Center Concert Hall, one can’t play small ball: a limited-scale, restrained approach to the piece is unlikely to work. So swing for the fences. Particularly in Messiah’s most spectacular moments, like the Hallelujah chorus and the final Amen, the full National Symphony Orchestra, and the 160-voice Washington Chorus, led by Sir Andrew Davis (who also put this version of the piece together), knock the ball out of the park. Not even the most passionate Mahler or Wagner performance could, to switch metaphors in midstream, raise the roof any higher.
The work of the chorus, prepared by Christopher Bell, was highly praiseworthy. The balance among sections, clarity of diction, and richness of sound were exemplary throughout. This was true not only in the big moments, but also in a more subdued section like the a capella entrance in Part 3’s “Since by man came death….” Another choral highlight was “And with His stripes we are healed,” in which the singers were joined by the brass.
The NSO was also in good form Saturday night, though there were moments in the orchestration that might have been thought through a bit more, like the somewhat obtrusive percussion entrances in “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.” With an instrumental ensemble of this size, power comes naturally, guided effectively by Davis. The orchestra’s volume was moderated during many of the solos by limiting the number of instruments engaged.
Among the soloists, soprano Adriana Churchman stood out. Her vocal strength carried her pieces clearly throughout the evening, without any sacrifice of tonal quality or interpretation. Coming immediately after the Hallelujah chorus, her “I know that my Redeemer liveth…” – a lovely piece of writing by Handel that recapitulates earlier melodies – was the most sublime musical moment of the evening. Also notable were baritone Sidney Outlaw who was especially effective in the higher parts of his register; mezzo Daniela Mack, with a smooth dark tone; and tenor Alek Shrader rounded out the team of soloists.
Messiah has justifiably been a hit since its debut, and audiences since the 18th century have been moved by Handel’s inspired and inspiring writing. Saturday’s audience was no exception, giving the performers an enthusiastic standing ovation.
A great deal of Messiah’s spiritual impact – and it is fair to call it that – comes from the musical writing itself. I was reminded of a comment a choral director made in rehearsal many years ago, to the effect that the Bach B Minor Mass was the best proof of the existence of God he had ever seen. That compliment could apply as well to Handel’s work here.
Messiah is as much a part of the December cultural calendar as later additions like A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker. But because the music is so good, and so familiar, I wonder if the content of the Charles Jennens’ libretto sometimes evades our notice.
After all, the oratorio presents, in its marvelous musical package, as good a summary as I can imagine of the foundational story of Christianity. It does so using traditional religious language: king of kings, lord of lords, shepherds tending their flocks, etc. Does this language still resonate in world in which, with a few exceptions (e.g., Thailand), kings and lords no longer inspire the sort of awe they might have in Biblical times or even the 18th century, and in which many people in urban society have likely never met a sheep outside a petting zoo?
Students of myth, like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, could probably explain and interpret the continuing, and profound, relevance of the story Messiah tells, even to people who do not think of themselves as orthodox Christians. But do most of us leave the concert hall simply with Handel’s wonderful melodies as Christmastime earworms, analogous to a glimpse of the Ghost of Christmas Past or visions of Sugar Plum Fairies dancing in our heads?
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Messiah concluded its run on Sunday afternoon, December 22, 2019, presented by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets to other upcoming shows, go online.