When our nearly thirty year old son was nine, he was accepted into the “special” choir at his elementary school. Although he was usually a child who had to be pried from his bed every morning, on choir days, he
cheerfully almost cheerfully got himself up early for the before school rehearsals. In an effort to reinforce his interest, I decided to take him to see the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance of Handel’s Messiah at the venerable La Scala-esque Academy of Music in Center City.
The excursion did not go exactly as I imagined in my mother-son bonding over baroque ecclesiastical music fantasy. Over my objections, the boy insisted on wearing his Eagles football sweatshirt. I finally relented 1) because I figured we would mostly be sitting in the dark, and 2) I was too tired after a day at work to be dogmatic. I had already learned that parents should pick their battles and I didn’t want to squander my battles quota on the Philadelphia Eagles.
I also had a horrendous cough which I figured I could keep under control with cough drops. Wrong. This meant I endured the performance desperately trying to suppress my eruptions until I could hack away during the loud full on chorus parts, thus receiving “if looks could kill” stares only from those sitting near me.
To complete the fun evening, when we finally got back to our car after the two and a half hour long “what was I thinking?” concert, I discovered that I had left the car headlights on. Back in the day, Toyota Corolla headlights did not go off automatically. “Excuse me Mister, do you have jumper cough cough cough cables?”
The silver lining was that in the outrageously long line for the Ladies Room during intermission, I ran into my friend, Idee. Her partner enjoyed the concert about as much as my Eagle sweatshirt clad kid had. We decided that from then on, we would be Handel Messiah buddies every year and leave our musically misguided loved ones at home. And so, with very few exceptions over the subsequent 20 years, together we have attended the Philadelphia Orchestra’s yearly Messiah performance.
Those of you
close friends and relatives who have been following Boomeresque for a little while, may not remember that during the spring, I had the temerity to review the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion despite my conspicuous lack of credentials as a music reviewer. I have decided to continue that tradition by offering my two cents review of this year’s Messiah performance.
Being a Messiah recidivist makes it
kind of fun interesting to compare each year’s performance with those of previous years. During the early years of our Messiah obsession attendance, it sometimes seemed the Orchestra was going through the motions, just to satisfy the hoi polloi’s clamor for a yearly Messiah fix. Among the musicians, there would be quite a few from the philharmonic equivalent of the practice squad, including one year, a trumpet player for whom I actually felt embarrassed. “The trumpets will sou- – wince.” Indeed, in all the years we attended, I do not recall the actual Music Director (chief conductor) of the Orchestra participating in the Messiah performance. Ricardo Muti — no-ah. Wolfgang Sawallisch — nein. Charles Dutoit — mais non. Our latest wunderkind,” French-Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin? — nope.
At some point, however, the Orchestra started bringing in outside conductors, some of whom were actually experts in Handel and baroque interpretation. If I am remembering correctly, one even conducted a much scaled down ensemble from the harpsichord.
This year, instead of the normal two or three performances, the Orchestra scheduled only a Sunday matinee. It seemed to be completely sold out, but we snagged excellent seats in the second row, center of the first tier in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. (One doesn’t scrimp on Messiah tickets — at least Idee and I don’t.) There was no evidence of any “War on Christmas”. To the contrary, the stage was tastefully decorated with Christmas trees and greenery sparkling with small white lights. The normal white lighting on the blond wood behind the stage was supplanted by red and green.
This was the first time I attended a concert conducted by associate conductor, Cristian Macelaru. I admit that I was pre-disposed to be less than wowed, but I found myself inexorably drawn in by his skillful “playing” of the orchestra and the excellent Philadelphia Singers Chorale as though they were his instruments. Aside from the rousing rendition of the Hallelujah chorus (audience on its feet, house lights up), in other parts of the oratorio, Marcelaru’s vision was nuanced and tender in comparison to the usual “all out, all the time” treatment that this piece often receives. Although every year I listen to my I-tunes purchased Messiah on my I-pod nano from Thanksgiving through Christmas, by the end of this performance, I felt that I had heard something new, an intriguing virtuoso version.
At times, I thought Macelaru set a pace with which the orchestra, chorus and soloists seemed to be struggling to keep up, including at the beginning of the choral interludes for “His yoke is easy” and even the ever charming “For unto us a Child is born.” However, the musicians seemed to give him their respectful rapt attention and were usually right with him.
Other than the harpsichord and a small organ, the orchestra did not use authentic baroque style instruments; however, Macelaru had them (let them?) use the Baroque styling necessitated by the old instruments that lacked the dynamic range of their modern day counterparts. Thus, the music was given texture by different articulations (for example, legato versus staccato notes) and by Baroque ornamentation such as grace notes, turns, mordents and trills. I can’t remember another performance where I was so aware of the Baroque sensibility of the performance.
Marcelaru used a stripped down version of the orchestra with only seven first violins and seven second violins, four cellos, three basses, two oboes, one bassoon and two trumpets added after intermission. (What? No flutes?) There were two keyboards—an organ and a harpsichord. During some vocal solos, he decreased the instrumentation even further by having only one cello and bass, and during one mezzo-soprano air, a lovely string quartet, which headlined the exquisitely ornamented performance of concertmaster, David Kim. In addition to Kim’s display of virtuosity, principal trumpet David Bilger’s flawless, erudite performance during “The trumpet shall sound” completely vanquished unpleasant memories of trumpet players in some past years.
I freely admit that I have even less business reviewing vocal music performances than instrumental ones. (At least I seriously studied the recorder (private lessons through high school) and I played second oboe in my high school and college orchestras). With that caveat—here (hear?) goes. I most enjoyed the performances of mezzo-soprano, Sasha Cooke, and tenor, Nicholas Phan. (At one point, Phan was also accompanied by a cell phone (c’mon people!?!) which sounded as he fittingly sang, “Thy rebuke has broken his heart.”).
The soprano, Yulia Van Doren, exhibited an impressive range with flawless intonation, but it seemed to me that she cut off the ends of words and phrases too abruptly and, at times, seemed to almost be running out of breath. I appreciated her gesture in turning to face the chorus during its solos. It is fitting that the program lists as a soloist in its own right, the expert Philadelphia Singers Chorale, directed by David Hayes.
The bass soloist, Alexander Dobson, turned in the least satisfying performance to my ear. Handel’s score requires the soloists to perform fairly long, sustained wordless passages. Dobson’s seemed choppy and forced. He also interjected some “acting” which came off as contrived, or even discordantly comical, considering the deadly serious subject matter of this oratorio. Prior to the bass air, “Why do the nations so furiously rage together,” he actually fixed members of the audience with a roving, glaring “stink eye”.
I no longer feel that the Philadelphia Orchestra’s yearly performance of Handel’s Messiah is a throw-away, “let’s get this over with” affair. I look forward to seeing what they come up with next year.