Distinguished Concerts International New York; Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Jonathan Griffith, Conductor
Penelope Shumate, Soprano; Claudia Chapa, Mezzo-Soprano;
John McVeigh, Tenor; Christopher Job, Baritone
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
New York, NY
November 26, 2017
DCINY has a magic touch. Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) under the direction of Jonathan Griffith has made a name since 2008 with extravagant large-scale productions, but their performance this weekend of Handel’s Messiah (the larger-than-life Goossens version) just may have topped all.
The sounds at their fullest were glorious, thanks to an enormous cast of musicians supporting fine soloists Penelope Shumate, Claudia Chapa, Christopher Job, and John McVeigh. Not only does DCINY have its own capable orchestra for such occasions, but it gathered close to five-hundred singers from Arizona, California, Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Ohio, as well as international choruses from Austria, Canada, France, Hong Kong, Mexico, and “individual singers from around the globe.” The emotions created by such large musical forces, mirrored and magnified by the excitement of the packed hall of music-lovers, have to be experienced to be believed. Suffice it to say that anyone proclaiming the end of classical music needs to crawl out from under his rock and witness it.
This reviewer was on a cloud of joy and admiration, a remarkable state in view of the fact that she has heard the entire piece many dozens of times in various incarnations, not counting excerpt performances, collectively bringing the tally into the hundreds. One might expect this music to feel “old hat” but Sunday’s concert was the farthest thing from it.
The overriding thrill has to be expressed first, as it is a shame to leave a concert floating on air, only to lose that spirit in the myriad details of the music’s history, its different arrangements, its performance practice, and more – though those details are rich and important in this much-storied work. Fortunately, for several years now, the illustrious reviewers of New York Concert Review have written about DCINY’s “Messiah … Refreshed!” as it has been titled, and so for background one can read their work here, Messiah Refreshed 2016 and here, Messiah Refreshed 2015. Because many among the personnel have been the same, even much of that information is still pertinent, though of course the performances are new each time.
The first solo of the day was from tenor John McVeigh in the recitative “Comfort ye my people.” He projected a warm sound and beautiful clarity of diction here, though he truly seemed at his best in the aria “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted.” Where some singers blur Handel’s long lines with indistinct pitches, and others manage the pitches with machine-gun-like attack, Mr. McVeigh established the perfect balance of flow and precision.
Baritone Christopher Job made his strong entrance with the recitative “This saith the Lord” but was particularly impressive in the “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” (hundreds of years later, as relevant as ever!). In the latter, thanks to Goossens’ expanded forces, Mr. Job had much to compete with, but he was more than up to the challenge.
Mezzo-soprano Claudia Chapa, with arguably the most to contend with in terms of balance against a similar range orchestrally, emerged victorious with her warm burnished phrases. What struck one about this singer was her musical sensitivity in subtly inflecting her held notes in “O thou that tellest good tidings in Zion.” She seemed responsive to each nuance in the orchestral parts, performing as a true ensemble member. Also excellent was her “He was despised.”
Soprano Penelope Shumate projected her bright sound quite powerfully, and there was never a hint of being overwhelmed by the substantial forces of chorus and orchestra. Her “How beautiful are the feet” was delivered with devout feeling, but perhaps her most memorable moments were in “I know that my redeemer liveth,” in which her softer dynamic levels were absolutely haunting.
Bringing everything together was Maestro Griffith, who managed the veritable army of musicians with heroic energy and skill. At times Handel – and Goossens – left an easier task than at others. For example, there are stretches of more homophonic textures, fairly cut and dried, in which Goossens’ ample orchestration simply makes everything fuller. On the other hand, in some of the more polyphonic sections where one part’s melismatic lines interweave, overlap, or synchronize with others’ – or in the rapid sixteenth notes of the chorus “And he shall purify” – ensemble matters become more daunting, not unlike getting several hundred centipedes to march in tandem. Occasionally a section of the chorus tended to dwell a bit too lovingly on their own lines, threatening to upset the rhythm by just a crucial nanosecond, but miraculously Maestro Griffith held them together throughout the entire concert. He is part conductor, part ringmaster, and part magician. Bravo!
There is not much space here to engage in debate on the relative merits of Goossens’ vs. Handel’s orchestrations (or Mozart’s), but there is, after all, much to appreciate in each one. The Goosens version, with expanded percussion, winds, and brass was first made famous by Thomas Beecham’s 1959 recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and has, despite much controversy, earned a rightful place in the music world. The numerous voices decrying it as a bombastic juggernaut will eventually have to accept that it is here to stay along with its earlier versions – one can always simply opt to listen only to one’s preferred versions.
Yes, there are moments in the Goossens when the use of the tuba seems superfluous, or harps and piccolo seem like so much window-dressing, but at the same time, the expanded forces make possible some gripping contrasts. The tender quietude of the pastoral “Pifa” movement, for example, stands out precisely because of the full orchestral sonorities preceding it.
Most of all, though, there is just nothing quite like the full orchestral forces unleashed in the famous Hallelujah, an apotheosis augmented by full brass, crashing cymbals, and the heightened decibels of hundreds of choristers singing from the balconies. The movement can be a life-affirming musical high, and we can thank Goossens for making that high even higher.
In the world of historic performance practice, if a musician is to be faithful to the spirit rather than the letter of musical “law,” then one perhaps ought to consider Handel’s own famed remark upon writing the Hallelujah chorus, “I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God.” If the music is to suggest such a revelation, then it might not be considered outrageous for the floors of Carnegie Hall to vibrate with the thundering resonance – and they did just that. It might also be considered appropriate that the audience leave a Messiah performance with mouths agape from wonderment – and they did just that, after a prolonged and deafening ovation.
Under the circumstances, one can best close this review with just one more word – Hallelujah!