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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Concert Review: Salvation Found Together

The Trinity Choir presents Messiah (again.)
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Singers of the Trinity Choir.
Photo by Leah Reddy for Trinity Church.
Handel's Messiah remains his blockbuster. It has remained in the repertory for 261 years, moving from a work performed to raise money for hospitals at Easter to an annual New York tradition in celebration of Christmas. Each year, its most traditional visitation comes at Trinity Church, which gave the work's New York premiere when it was considered "new music." That premiere was echoed by Wednesday night's performance, which also kicked off a month-long celebration of baroque music at this historic locale.

Under the baton of music director Julian Wachner, the Trinity Choir presented a Messiah designed to adhere closely to Handel's original premiere of the piece in Dublin in 1743. Mr. Wachner called for a small orchestral force, with strings supported by period instruments: wood-holed bassoons and oboes and natural slide trumpets. These filled the church acoustic with a warm, woody sound. A portative organ among the orchestra was used instead of the mammoth instrument built into the church.

Musically and textually, Messiah stands alone in Handel's output. Unusually, it depicts events of the New Testament, incorporating quotes from the Old Testament prophets, the Gospels and the later parts of the Bible. The libretto uses these excerpts to retells the birth of Christ, the Passion and Resurrection, and the overwhelming influence of those events in a non-narrative way. It is farther from opera than any of Handel's oratorios--which might account for its universal appeal.

Crucial to the success of Messiah was Handel's synthesis of different musical forms: the French baroque overture, the da capo aria (a staple of his operas) and the German suite that would explore single musical ideas against an arrangement of different dance rhythms. The second act's climax (better known as the Hallelujah Chorus) does not come out of nowhere but is built from previous arias and thematic ideas in a manner that predates the leitmotif technique of Richard Wagner.

Unlike some massive Messiahs staged in New York at this time of year, this  performance restricted the Trinity Choir to just twenty-eight singers. The soloists emerged from the chorus to sing he  recitatives and arias, with their individual performances always answered by the ready response of the chorus. Indeed, hearing the text of Messiah declaimed by a wide range of singers gave a universality to its meaning, enhancing the communal feel of this performance.

That's not to say there weren't individual standouts. Marie-Eve Munger and Linda Lee Jones made a strong pair of soprano soloists, bringing virtuosity and a bright joy to the most florid passages of the score. Alto Luthien Brackett sang "He was despised and rejected" with the pathos of Handel's Cleopatra. Tenor Brian Giebler excelled in the Evangelist-like role of narrator during the Passion sequence. Bass Christopher Burchett impressed in his three arias, especially the climactic, triumphant "The trumpet will sound" accompanied by that very instrument.

Mr. Wachner led a carefully paced performance that built a feeling of wonder and delight in the account of the birth of Christ and the appearance of the Angel of the Lord. The work steadily increased in momentum through a slow first act, climaxing in the chorus "His yoke is easy." That sense of forward motion climaxed in the second, with a resounding and uplifting Hallelujah Chorus. At this point, some concertgoers left. They missed a superb third act, where the reflective passages were given meaning and weight, showing the geometric precision of Handel's design and the inspiration of chorus and orchestra alike.

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