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Monday, December 21, 2015

Concert Review: Keeping the Faith

The Philharmonic resurrects Handel's Messiah.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Jane Glover.
Photo by Ken Howard for Chicago Music of the Baroque.
Ever since the twelve-year music directorship of the late Kurt Masur, the oratorio has resumed pride of place at the New York Philharmonic. That was confirmed last week when Jane Glover, the eminent British musicologist and conductor known to New Yorkers from her opera performances at Juilliard, made her debut with the orchestra conducting this year's run of Handel's Messiah.

Ms. Glover, who made her reputation as a specialist in baroque performances and historically informed music making, allowed the Philharmonic players to use modern instruments, but chose an older, sparse arrangement of the holiday favorite. She favored brisk tempos in the opening Sinfonia and made judicious cuts to the score, keeping the audience involved and the momentum of this dramatically static oratorio moving. She brought fresh energy to this well-traveled work.

Unlike Handel's Old Testament oratorios (dramatic retellings of the Bible like  Saul or Samson) Messiah is unique in being a contemplative oratorio. Its three acts reflect on the meaning of the birth, passion and resurrection of Jesus rather than re-enacting the Gospels themselves a la Bach's Passions. Its libretto, built by scribe Charles Jennens and carefully edited by Handel himself, cherry-picks passages out of both the Old and New Testaments. The workhas remained a smash success since its premiere in 1742.

For these concerts, given over five days at the recently renamed David Geffen Hall, the Philharmonic were joined by a strong quartet of soloists. Juilliard product Paul Appleby is fast becoming a star, and he impressed with his impassioned delivery of the opening "Comfort ye." He was at the opposite end of the spectrum in Act II, raging through the arias describig the suffering and crucifixion of Christ. The alto part was taken by countertenor Tim Mead, who sang "He was despised and rejected" with a pure, clear tone that captured this three-part aria's contemplative nature.

Baritone Roderick Williams was in his element for "The Trumpet Shall Sound," delivering this triumphant Act III aria with orotund tone and genuine enthusiasm. Finally, soprano Heidi Stober sang the great aria "I know that my Redeemer liveth" with purity of tone and an agile instrument that skipped nimbly above the spartan orchestration.

At the heart of the success of this Messiah was the Westminster Symphonic Choir, superbly prepared by Joe Miller. These choristers know this work cold, but it was the empathic and impassioned nature of their singing that made the great choruses that give Messiah its spark thrilling, even as they succeeded each other in a long parade.

As Part II of Messiah built to its climax, the audience, following the tradition established by the English king George II at the work's London premiere, stood for the Hallelujah Chorus. (Nobody knows why the king stood up, it may have been in reverence of Handel or it may have been a leg cramp. But everyone stands up at this point.) In a world filled with uncertainty, this was an emotional height, a reassurance of the promises made by the central figure of Messiah and a testament to the power of Handel's muse.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.