The Christmas season does not start the day after Halloween or even the day after Thanksgiving for me. It really falls in line with the first big musical awakening that I experience as a reminder that it’s impending. Sometimes it’s hearing Christmas carols in a public place like a store, but this year, two events today really signaled the coming of the holiday for me. The day started off with a caroling world record attempt at the Prudential Center with the Keith Lockhart and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Under the shadow of the convention center and surrounding buildings, a mass of carolers bundled up for the cold waited around while some local radio DJs and a scary looking bipedal Rudolph entertained the crowd. My friend MP accompanied me to caroling, where we met a girl who sings alto with the Back Bay Chorale with someone with whom I work. We ended up talking and singing with her and got to hear her beautiful voice while MP and I sang mostly loudly. Unfortunately, the group of us did not even come near the Guinness world record, since they have a precision better than the thousands of people. Nevertheless, it was a fun way to ring in the season.
I was actually thankful to be in the area already, since I had to go to Symphony Hall and pick up student rush tickets to the Handel and Haydn Society’s (HHS) 3 pm performance of George Friedrich Handel’s Messiah, led by Harry Christophers. I met my symphony friend CB there and we waited with a handful of others for the HHS ticketing to open. We were fortunate enough to get first balcony, fourth row center-right tickets. I think I prefer the sound in the first balcony center to anywhere else in Symphony Hall, so I was very excited about the seating.
The last performance I saw of the Messiah was in December 2008 with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. (I’m not sure why I did not write a post about it at the time.) Because this music has been so commonly performed at christmastime, I rarely hear it during the year, and it was a treat to get another live performance. But it’s really timeless music in the Christian tradition.
The HHS orchestra is on the smaller side. They featured just one bassist, for instance, and I guess the entire brass section was just the two lone trumpets. I’m not clear whether or not this was in Handel’s orchestration and also typical of a period orchestra (often orchestras playing Mozart are smaller) or just the constraints of HHS. I believe that the orchestra could have benefitted from a larger group in Symphony Hall. A piece like this, with literally trumpeting voices, can never have too much power behind it. I think the smaller Jordan Hall might have been a perfect venue for them, in fact.
Nevertheless, the hall was filled with beautiful choral voices that are my favorite to hear live. While not at first sold on alto Catherine Wyn-Rogers, my lasting impression was of her beautiful voice. I really did enjoy soprano Sophie Bevan as well. Her coloratura was well-modulated, though not quite as strong as some I’ve heard, such as that of Cecilia Bartoli. For their parts, tenor Allan Clayton and bass Sumner Thomson were excellent. Though we hear a duet of alto and tenor in the third part, I would have liked for Handel to include more vocal duets outside of the chorus. Another intriguing combination from the Messiah was the solo trumpet along with Mr Thomson, which was quite engaging. One amusing moment was the point at which trumpets appeared on the far right of the first balcony and treated some in the front orchestra sections to a festive surround sound experience. The performance was a wonderful way to continue the musical holiday season for me.
I enjoy several songs in this piece, and they might well be among the more popular excerpts, though I’m really not sure. In Part I, the entire ‘Wonderful Councillor’ exaltation is quite uplifting and always a piece I look forward to. It’s the statement of prophesy that many Christians believe is the prophesy for the coming of Jesus Christ.
In Part II, the alto’s first aria is another powerful passage. Here is presented a timeless idea but also a specific prophesy in Isaiah about the suffering and rejection among men that Christ would endure. But there is a picture of great strength here, as is most clearly evidenced by the final phrase: “he hid not his face from shame and spitting.”
Later in Part II, I find the “sheep” chorus kind of funny. Not because I don’t respect the theology in the shepherd/sheep analogy, but because it’s just funny out of context to hear a chorus singing, “All we like sheep”.
I also am compelled by a bass solo in Part II, “Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?” It’s a timeless question that is as poignant today.
And of course, the chorus sings Hallelujah, and immediately our audience stood on cue. There was no need for printed instruction for this knowledgeable crowd, which I probably should not have been as surprised about. But for a person who is Christian and finds sacred choral music among the most connecting, beautiful expressions of faith, this was not merely standing in custom for the piece but rather a proud moment of praise.
Finally, in Part III, “Since by man came death” collapsed and rose instantaneously, effectively punctuating the duality of the text’s emotional message. Both “Since by man came death” and “For as in Adam all die” were sung in floating, ghostly whispers, while exalted were “by man came also the resurrection of the dead” and “even so in Christ shall all be made alive”.