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Handel’s Messiah – Philadelphia Orchestra Style

by Suzanne Fluhr on December 25, 2013 · 36 comments

Verizon Hall Stage, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts

The Chandros Portrait of Georg Friedrich Handel (1675-1734)

The Chandros Portrait of Georg Friedrich Handel (1675-1734)

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.

Philadelphia's Academy of Music

Interior of the Philadelphia’s venerable Academy of Music, former home of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Still used by performing groups. (Photo: SSG Chris Branagan)

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.

"Music Reviewer's" Notes on the Philadelphia Orchestra program for Handel's Messiah - 2013

My scribbling on my program during the concert prompted the person sitting next to me to ask if I was a music reviewer. Sure. Why not?

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.

Verizon Hall Stage, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts

The Verizon Hall stage in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. (Apparently, one is not supposed to take photos even before the performance. Oops. Sometimes it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission).

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.

Rittenhouse Square Philadelphia decorated for Christmas

Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square decked out in lights and by Mother Nature for the holidays.

Are you a fan of Handel’s Messiah? Is there some music, performance or community event that is part of your winter holiday season?

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike December 25, 2013 at 3:26 am

I loved this post, Suzanne! And before I forget…awesome review! I read it twice actually. A few things to share. My best friend for a good 20 years had the last name of Handel and gave me the history behind the name. I found it fascinating. I could also totally relate to the *cough, cough, cough* as I still have the lingering effects of the bronchitis and needed to be quiet in a particular environment just earlier tonight. Very embarrassing. My dad and step mom “dragged” us off to a orchestra concert as kids to broaden our horizons once upon a time. I was dreading it. Then they started up playing, my jaw dropped, and I didn’t want it to end. Yep! We went to other’s after that but once I moved away I never got back to a concert. I would absolutely go again. Oh and that Academy of Music?? I will soooo go with you and Steve should I make it to Philly! I will even were nice clothes (re: no football jerseys) 🙂 Great Christmas Eve read to come home to and thank you for the great memory flashback! Merry Christmas to all of you! 🙂


Suzanne Fluhr December 25, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Mike, as always, thanks for your engaging comment. Alas, the Philadelphia Orchestra no longer performs at the Academy of Music. She is the Grand Old Dame of South Broad Street and still is used for performances by other groups. The Pennsylvania Ballet performed the Nutcracker there this month. Most important—-that’s where I graduated from high school —- way back in the day. Merry Christmas and best wishes for the New Year to you and Phoenix.


Roz Warren December 25, 2013 at 9:29 am

I’m wearing an Eagles shirt next time I attend the Messiah. Maybe it’ll catch on.


Suzanne Fluhr December 25, 2013 at 12:18 pm

Roz, if the Eagles beat Dallas on Sunday and make it to the Super Bowl, who knows, there could be some Eagle sweatshirts in the audience next year. On the other hand, as a life long Eagles fan, I’m not holding my breath. 😉


Madaline Fluhr December 25, 2013 at 11:09 am

I love how you and Idee forged your Messiah tradition! I’m sure many of your readers would like to tag along next year. A great substantive review mixed with a personal tale to keep it real – what could be better – very entertaining – would love to attend a Messiah performance with you as “musical sherpa” leading me through the highways and byways of this renowned piece of music. “Traveling” does not always need to be in miles! Happy Holidaze!!


Suzanne Fluhr December 25, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Mads, thanks for taking time out of your Christmas Day to read my post and to leave a comment. I like the imagery of being a “musical sherpa”. In my case, it’s probably more accurate than considering myself a music performance reviewer.


Steven Albelda December 25, 2013 at 11:36 am

Very impressive review. Did you compare yours with the “official review”


Suzanne Fluhr December 25, 2013 at 12:26 pm

I did, but I purposely didn’t read it until I had finished mine. I think mine was remarkably consistent with that of the Inquirer’s official music critic — except for the fact that he commented on places where he thought the interpretation was too slow and I mentioned others where I thought it seem rushed. He also wasn’t that fond of the baritone’s “acting”. Compare for yourself:


Mark Brody December 26, 2013 at 1:50 am

As an early 40-something guy, I probably would have tried to attend a concert in a sports jersey back in the day as well. As I have gotten older, I have definitely appreciated classical music more than I did when I was much younger. Although my paternal grandparents had a love of classical music, it just did not rub off on me while they were here. I remember my grandfather building his own harpsichord just before he passed away and I do love the sound of that instrument as well as that of the piano.

You definitely have a love of Handel’s Messiah and a great depth of knowledge when it comes to vocal and instrumental performances! Thank you for sharing and giving your reader something to key in on when they attend such performances!

Thank you for sharing!


Suzanne Fluhr December 26, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Thanks, Mark. I’m glad you came around on the classical music thing. I enjoy popular music also, but I find some classical works to be transcendental and my head needs a break from the everyday angst associated with being alive sometimes.


Catarina December 26, 2013 at 6:02 am

Handel’s Messiah is part of Christmas for many of us in Europe. It’s beautiful and part of our cultural heritage.


Suzanne Fluhr December 26, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Thanks for your comment. It’s interesting that it has become a piece of music associated with Christmas here and in Europe. It was originally written for Easter and if you think about it, it covers Jesus’ birth as just a part of his life and then goes forward to the Resurrection.


Jacqueline Gum (Jacquie) December 26, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Handel’s Messiah is one of my all time favorites. I also sang it several times in both school and church choirs. Don’t know how anyone can listen to it and not get goose bumps. We sang it at both Easter and Christmas! But I was raised with a classical pianist in the house, so I happen to love classical music. As to attending concerts where silence is appreciated…I always cough. I may not have coughed for a solid year, but take me to a classical music concert and feathers magically grow in my throat. It’s some weird demented form of rebellion…maybe my throat wants to sing it like the old days! We probably shouldn’t arrange to attend a concert together!


Suzanne Fluhr December 26, 2013 at 11:36 pm

Jacquie, now that you mention it, coughing in concerts does seem to be contagious. When one person gives in to the “feathers,” others seem to acquire the same problem — maybe in sympathy or empathy or something. During last Sunday’s concert, I remember thinking to myself that it was one of the quieter audiences I’ve experienced, especially in the wintertime.


Susan Cooper December 27, 2013 at 1:32 pm

When you have seen Handel’s Messiah performed to it majesty, it make all others pale after that. Then there are the times that someone steps up and does something different that enthralls you, as was the case with to performance you reviewed. What I loved about your review was that I felt I was there. It’s been a while since I have been to a performance of the Handel’s Messiah. I believe I need to go next year when it’s performed in or near my area. 🙂


Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) December 27, 2013 at 6:44 pm

Thanks, Susan. I’m glad you could relate to the post. I was afraid it was too pedantic. What I enjoy about going every year to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Messiah, is the fact the performance changes so much from year to year. It makes you really see that conductors are not just standing up there waving their little batons. With a good conductor, his/her vision for the piece shines through.


Patti December 27, 2013 at 9:46 pm

I love the story leading up to the review and I have to admit I would feel just about the same as your son when it comes to sitting and listening to an orchestra. When we owned our restaurant, for several years in a row, we hosted our business anniversary event at the local symphony and I would have to work very hard to “pretend” my enthusiasm for the evening. I love live theater, but I am too wiggly for an orchestra. 😉


Suzanne Fluhr December 29, 2013 at 3:43 am

Thanks for stopping by, Patti. Why didn’t you host your business anniversary shindig at a venue you would have enjoyed more? I mean, you were paying for it, right? Unless you were trying to attract the orchestra set as patrons. 😉


Patti December 29, 2013 at 11:38 pm

You’d think, right?! But it was a working partnership kind of thing.


Debra Yearwood December 28, 2013 at 7:18 pm

What a wonderful surprise for you, there is nothing like getting surprised by a great performance.

I attended Handel’s Messiah once a few years ago. Like you I was there with my son, but my son had a grade attached to his review of the performance and so we was slightly more enthusiastic about the attendance. He had waited until less than a week away from deadline to let us know. We scrambled, got the tickets and attended the packed performance. I grumbled and scolded him about my time, money and respect for deadlines until the music started. Then I sat back and thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Sometimes you have to look at things the right way to see the benefit. You got a buddy to see the show and I had a wonderful musical experience. 🙂


Suzanne Fluhr December 29, 2013 at 3:45 am

We’ve had that last minute scramble in our house also. “Oh, you’re the snack mom for soccer practice tomorrow.” Tomorrow!?!?!? I’m glad your Messiah scramble ended well for you. What did you think of your son’s paper?


Debra Yearwood January 16, 2014 at 10:51 am

Let’s just say it required a fair bit of intervention. Things along the lines of, “You can’t just say the performance was “good”, you have to explain why it was good.” He eventually got the hang of it after I showed him some professional reviews. I wish I’d had this review. 🙂


Neva Fels December 28, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Encouraging our children to learn and love music through instruments and singing led to our oldest playing with the area symphony. We were so proud to watch him play in a similar performance. Loved your review and thanks for helping bring back memories of our kids and the clothes they insisted on wearing at inopportune times.


Suzanne Fluhr December 29, 2013 at 3:47 am

I’m afraid both our boys abandoned their “serious” music careers very early on. I just wasn’t up for the battles about practicing. Now, they have both taught themselves the guitar and I wonder if they wish they had tried a little harder when they were children. What instrument does your son play?


Suzi Jordan December 29, 2013 at 1:41 am

Wonderful article as always! I truly enjoy reading all of them. A Happy and Healthy New Year to you and your family, and safe travels.


Suzanne Fluhr December 29, 2013 at 3:49 am

Suzi, thanks so much for being a faithful reader. I guess it will be a little tense in your house later this evening. Fly Eagles Fly! 😉 I know the Eagles might be favored to win now that the Cowboys have to use a back up quarter back, but I don’t count my Ealges eggs until they’re hatched!


Michele Peterson December 29, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Great post! Oh, I’d love to have heard Handel’s Messiah this holiday season. Here in Guatemala, Santa came by on a fire truck to the sound of sirens and salsa music – a festive Christmas tradition in its own way!


Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) December 29, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Celebration = music. Wherever. Whenever. : -)


Cathy Sweeney December 29, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Who said you weren’t qualified to review a musical performance? Excellent job! I’d love to go to a performance of Handel’s Messiah during the holidays sometime. We’ve been to our share of Nutcracker performances over the years, but it’s been a while and I’d like to start the tradition again with my great-nieces and nephews.


Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) December 29, 2013 at 3:19 pm

I’ve been to enough Nutcracker performances to hold me—at least until and if we are blessed with grandchildren. But, I happily go to a performance of Handel’s Messiah every year. Go figure.


Jess @UsedYorkCity January 6, 2014 at 11:50 am

I love the story of how you met your music-loving friend in line for the bathroom, brilliant! I also have a “theater-going buddy” who I attend cultural events with…it’s nice when they are equally as enthused!

My winter tradition is The Nutcracker…we have many different versions in the city, so it’s always a fresh take on a classic! Happy 2014, and I look forward to following your blog this year!


Suzanne Fluhr January 6, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Thanks for stopping by, Jess. I agree, it’s best to attend cultural events with someone who isn’t being dragged along.


Crystal Ross March 18, 2014 at 6:13 pm

Suzanne, This is a gorgeous place and I want to go here next Christmas! I live in the desert. Well, Scottsdale, AZ. It is 70 degrees and sunny here during winter. I would love to go somewhere on Christmas day and have it actually feel like Christmas. This is a lovely article. =)


Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) March 28, 2014 at 3:02 pm

There is something that feels right about snowy and cold for Christmas even though the original Christmas day would have been anything but.


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