Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) in Review

“Messiah…Refreshed!”
Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY): Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concerts Singers International, Jonathan Griffith, Music Director; Penelope Shumate, soprano; Doris Brunatti, contralto;
Jorge Garza, tenor; Liam Moran, bass.
Avery Fisher Hall; Lincoln Center, New York, NY
November 25, 2012

Written in the space of 24 days in 1741, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is a work with a storied performance history.  Premiered in Dublin in 1742, it has been a mainstay of the repertoire since. Using a libretto from Charles Jennens, Messiah is the story of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.

Messiah is no stranger to reworking and revision. Handel himself rearranged and rewrote sections to suit his needs; selections could be added or deleted based on the talents available. Mozart produced a version in 1789 that is still in use today, although nineteenth-century critic Moritz Hauptmann caustically remarked that Mozart’s revisions were “stucco ornaments on a marble temple.”  The controversy has not abated. There have been “sing-a-long” editions and even a rock version performed and recorded. The version performed at today’s concert is generally attributed to Sir Thomas Beecham and Eugene Goossens, although Beecham’s contribution was overstated for many years by his widow.  It was not until the 1990s that Lady Beecham’s claims were refuted; the score was completely Goossens’s work.

Beecham commissioned fellow conductor and composer Goossens to re-orchestrate Messiah to utilize the full forces of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He felt that larger forces were needed to project the sound in increasingly large venues.  Beecham recorded this version in 1959; it is still available on CD today, and it continues to be controversial.  Purists who believe that Handel’s conception should remain true to the original find the Goossens version to be vulgar, while its defenders argue that the greater forces enhance the grandeur of the work.

Make no mistake; this is not your great-grandfather’s Messiah. It is brash, extroverted, and at times bombastic.  It is not Messiah – it is MESSIAH, with double the sound, new and improved, with cymbals and triangle! It is Messiah on steroids, the epitome of the saying “Go big or go home.”  This version is tailor-made for DCINY; an organization that never fails to pull out all the stops in putting on a big show.

Conductor Jonathan Griffith led the orchestra and 200-plus chorus with a sure hand. It would have been easy to lose control of these large forces, but Griffith was up to challenge of delivering the big sound without losing focus on the music itself.  The playing was excellent throughout and the exuberance of the percussionists was a special joy to see and hear. The trumpet playing in Behold, I tell you a mystery was particularly striking in its clarity and beauty of tone.  The chorus was well balanced and strong in its supporting role.

The four soloists had the biggest challenge, to sing their demanding parts while having to project enough to be heard over the large forces behind them. There were moments when each singer was in peril of being drowned out, but happily, they all overcame the dangers and delivered fine performances.  I believe each soloist became stronger and more confident as the performance progressed, as they made adjustments to project their voices.  Soprano Penelope Shumate was confident and assured; There were shepherds abiding in the field was a highlight of her performance. Contralto Doris Brunatti was compelling in her role; Behold, a virgin shall conceive was her best of several excellent solos. Tenor Jorge Garza sang his role with total involvement; one could feel the venom in the word “rebuke” in his solo, Thy rebuke hath broken his heart.  It was his He that dwelleth in heaven, though, that was the highlight of his performance to this listener. Finally, the talented Bass Liam Moran was not to be overshadowed by his fellow soloists. His solo, Why do the nations so furiously rage together?, was the high point of his outstanding singing.

One would be remiss if not making special mention of the Hallelujah chorus. It did not disappoint, delivered in a manner that could be described as over-the-top, complete with young members of the Distinguished Concerts Singers International joining in from the second tier in the audience (in what is becoming a signature feature of DCINY concerts). The audience stood spontaneously as they often do for the Hallelujah, and many could be seen singing along.  At the close, the audience roared its approval for several minutes.  The closing chorus, Worthy is the lamb that was slain, was performed with similar spirit. The excitement built to such a fever pitch that one bass in the chorus jumped in a moment early after a dramatic pause. The work was brought to a rousing close, and the audience responded with five minutes of thunderous applause, eliciting several curtain calls for the soloists and conductor Griffith. It was a well-deserved ovation to a memorable concert. Congratulations to DCINY for yet another winning performance.