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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.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Concert Review: Salvation on Fifth Avenue

The St. Thomas Men and Boys Choir presents Handel's Messiah.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The St. Thomas Chois of Men and Boys, earlier this season performing Israel in Egypt.
Photo from St. Thomas Episcopal Church.
There are any number of ways for a chorus and orchestra to come together to perform Messiah, the 1741 oratorio that remains Handel's most popular contribution to the canon of Western classical music. For New Yorkers, one of the most satisfying and traditional Messiah experiences to be had is held each year at St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, which is home to one of the few choral schools still operating in the United States.

The St. Thomas forces are all men and boys, the former taking the bass, tenor and alto parts and the latter mostly trebles with a few altos. As they filed to their seats through the nave they looked like a little college of cardinals, in high-necked scarlet vestments. They stood behind the excellent New York Baroque Incorporated ensemble, themselves playing period instruments to Crete the appropriate sounds of Handel's day. They played in the nave, under the leadership of Daniel Hyde from the harpsichord. He made brisk work of the many movements, keeping the momentum of the story going without too many stops to rest.

Messiah stands alone among Handel's works, not just for its ubiquity at this time of year but also in its unique nature and subject matter. You see, Handel rewrote the rule book in setting the text of Messiah, choosing a libretto that retold the story of Jesus' prophecy, birth, death, resurrection and eventual triumph with texts drawn from both testaments of the Bible. This was a radical movem as the oratorio was principally created to tell sacred stories drawn "safely" from the Old Testament.

Handel's early arias and choruses take their texts from the Books of the Prophets (chiefly Isaiah and Malachi.) The later depictions of the Passion use quotes from the Gospels and the later letters of key apostles. The Hallelujah Chorus itself comes from the Book of Revelation. "Ev'ry valley shall be exalted" was sung by tenor Thomas Cooley, a frequent performer in this work who brought supple tone and bold energy to this familiar music. He positively dominated in the latter part of the work,  singing "Thou shalt break them" with real belief injected into every syllable.

In her initial aria ("O thou that tellest"), mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle had trouble warming up but proved her worth as the piece progressed. Finally, her voice blossomed, a rich mezzo with genuine alto notes that are so rarely sung as properly as they were here. Her finest moment was "He was despised," which ended with a hushed, hypnotizing coda that made the listener feel the weight of Christ's passion and the degree of suffering that Handel was trying to convey.

Soprano Molly Quinn had the most difficult assignment, serving as a late substitute for the originally scheduled singer. She brought a light coloratura instrument that piped above the orchestra, supported expertly by Mr. Hyde who gave the singer room to breathe in her arias. The bass part was taken by baritone Alexander Dobson. He was appropriately melismatic in the "breath" aria with its demanding German-style ornamentation, and appropriately heroic in "The trumpet shall sound," supported by a vintage slide instrument in the old school fashion.

The baroque ensemble proved a supple and flexable foil to the singers, but the real heroes were the red-vestmented choristers. The altos were especially astounding, producing a loud and convincing upper range to the famous Hallelujah Chorus. The final fugue, chorus and Amen was supported further by the presence of the recently restored St. Thomas Church organ, a muscular interloper that made this Messiah end in a unique, forceful but entirely successful manner.
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