DCINY presents Messiah…Refreshed!

DCINY presents Messiah…Refreshed!

Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Jonathan Griffith, Conductor
Penelope Shumate, Soprano
Claudia Chapa, Mezzo-Soprano
John McVeigh, Tenor
Christopher Job, Bariton
Sunday, November 27, 2016, 2 PM
Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium


Well, the holiday season is officially here, with the sixth annual presentation of Messiah in the “inflated” version commissioned by Sir Thomas Beecham from Eugene Goossens for the Handel death-bicentennial in 1959. I shall try not to be too Scrooge-like about it, that wouldn’t really be in the spirit of things! I first heard (and reviewed) this version two years ago with pleasure, and the interpretation is remarkably consistent across that time. Only the mezzo-soprano was different (and of course the massed choirs). The whole endeavor, powered by Jonathan Griffith’s committed conducting, gives enjoyment to the performers and to their audience, so after all it must be counted a success, even if one has quibbles with specifics.

Is there any other single work that so identifies its composer, almost to the exclusion of Handel’s numerous other worthy genres: opera, cantata, organ music, anthems, even the other oratorios?

The grand old tradition of Handel-tampering, of course, began with Handel himself and continued through Mozart, Hiller, and many others. Gigantism began as early as 1784 in British performances of the then hallowed Handel with a 513-performer rendition. The European Magazine wrote: “The immense volume and torrent of sound was almost too much for the head or the sense to bear—we were elevated into a species of delirium.” Sir Joshua Reynolds wrote: “I was so delighted that I thought myself in the heavenly regions. The Harmony so unbroken that is was like the fall of Waters from one source, imperceptibly blended. The Spectacle too was sublime, So universal a silence, So great a number of people.” In an 1857 British performance, there were 2000 vocal and 500 instrumental forces. In 1859: 2765 singers, 450 instruments. In 1883: 4000 singers, 500 instruments. Objections to these outsize forces were also found as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century, but they were outweighed by Victorian reverence for Handel combined with the explosive growth of choral societies. G.B. Shaw, in the early twentieth century, also pleaded for something closer to what Handel might have known: “People think that four thousand singers must be four thousand times as impressive as one. This is a mistake: they are not even louder.”

I will confess that when I counted upwards of 400 names in the choral listing in the program booklet, I was a bit nervous. However, Griffith seems to have selected about half of them for Part 1 duty, then they retire to the balconies on either side of the audience, and after intermission the other half performs Parts 2 & 3. Choir 1 did not have clean runs; but Choir 2 did, and Griffith was quite merciless in pursuing brisk tempi that almost prevented anything but a choral smudge. Their block chord work however, was mostly exciting, and he even managed to elicit a few softer sounds from these large forces. All 400-plus joined together for the “Hallelujah” chorus and the concluding “Worthy is the lamb that was slain” for a truly thrilling sound that had actually been missing most of the afternoon in the “mere” 200-voice choirs. Even some audience members couldn’t resist the temptation to add their voices to the mix during “Hallelujah.”

Handel began work in 1741 in London on Messiah for a series of concerts for Irish charities, at the invitation of William Cavendish; the series would include many other works as well. Handel started on 22 August, Part 1 was complete by 28 August, Part 2 by 6 September, and Part 3 on 12 September. A few more days were added, polishing up the results, twenty-four days in all. Of course none of this could have happened without Handel’s well-known recourse to self-borrowing, or even appropriation from other composers, for which he was taken to task more than once in his lifetime. (Although William Boyce reportedly said: “He takes other men’s pebbles and polishes them into diamonds.”) Handel also reworked many numbers from it considerably over the years. Handel himself associated the performance of Messiah with Easter, but modern practice also favors Christmas—the text, dubbed a “Scripture collection” by its creator Charles Jennens, outlines all the festivals of the Christian church-year.

The premiere was in Dublin, 13 April 1742 (at noon), at the New Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, seat of the Charitable Musical Society. The audience capacity was between 600 and 700. Handel had to provide his own organ (portable, called a “bureau” organ) since there was none in the hall. Several of his own organ concerti were also on the bill with Messiah in what must have been a long afternoon of music. The chorus consisted of thirty-two: sixteen men and sixteen boys. The solos were considered so taxing that there was more than one soloist for each voice type.

Today’s soloists were uniformly excellent, with soprano Penelope Shumate and her sparkling coloratura perfection in “Rejoice greatly” and a very affecting “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” though at times her English had an “Italian” accent with many schwas at the end of words (they add clarity, but can be overdone). Claudia Chapa, mezzo-soprano, sang with absolute heart, so much so that I wished “He was despised” was not cut, but would go on forever (I really wanted to hear how she would express “He gave his back to the smiters.”). All afternoon her phrases were of admirable length, she seems to have unlimited air supply. Tenor John McVeigh reprised the sweet lyric quality that I remember so well from two years ago, tending to shade a bit sharp (nerves?) near the beginning, and once in a while chopping up phrases or single words instead of sustaining a legato. His “Behold and see if there is any sorrow” was beautiful. His most endearing trait was the attention he paid to his other colleagues when they were singing their solos, he even turned to face the chorus with an air of painful surprise as they hurled their accusatory “He trusted in God that he would deliver him,” before returning to face forward. Bass Christopher Job again had the perfect sound for the punishing “The trumpet shall sound,” but there were some weird additional musical lines in the orchestra during “The people that walked in darkness” that threatened to “like sheep,” lead the music astray. All the soloists risked being overbalanced by the heavier orchestra, but only at times (too much cymbal!)

May I suggest that Maestro Griffith go ahead and make his own version of this version, so to speak, removing some of the dated bombast and perhaps clarifying a few textures here and there? I do admire his devotion to this “relic” however. By the way, since this is not only about the massed choirs, but a substantial re-orchestration, the fact that the excellent orchestra is not listed person-by-person in the program is a grave injustice. The concertmaster is excellent, and the clarino trumpet was superb. The hushed return of the A section of the “Pifa” (Pastoral Symphony) was gorgeous, as it was two years ago.

The work affords the chance for these dedicated multi-state and international choruses, whose individual conductors were acknowledged at the end, the thrill of a holiday trip to New York and the unparalleled experience of singing on the main stage of Carnegie Hall. Bravo to all, and happy holidays!


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Verdi Requiem in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Verdi Requiem in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Verdi Requiem

Jonathan Griffith, conductor

Distinguished Concerts Orchestra; Distinguished Concerts Singers International

Penelope Shumate, soprano; Claudia Chapa, mezzo-soprano; John Pickle, tenor; Christopher Job, bass

Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

May 24, 2015


The Verdi Requiem is one of sacred music’s guilty pleasures, always thrilling even though you know it’s so operatic. So much so, in fact, that it was banned from performance within the Catholic church setting until the early 1960s. Or was it the fact that it was composed by a self-proclaimed atheist? The piece was written in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, a hero of the “Risorgimento,” the mid-nineteenth century movement for Italian unification. Verdi joins Mozart and Berlioz in his relish of the terrifying aspects of death rather than offering comfort to those left behind, as we find in Brahms, Fauré, and Duruflé.

DCINY presented a superior rendition on Sunday night. Due credit must go to the conductor, Jonathan Griffith (who is also co-founder and artistic director of DCINY), who assembles these gigantic choral/orchestral pieces with choirs coming to New York from all over the US and, in this case, Denmark and England. Clearly, his vision for the piece, and his ability to convey it, are crystal clear, because he gets audible results from his assembled forces.

The choir was so large that numerous female members of the soprano and alto sections had to be located in the front balconies, creating an antiphonal effect that was not unwelcome, though it did lead to minor imprecision of ensemble that did not detract from the overall impression.

The chorus thundered when the score requested, but even more critically, they whispered in terrified awe and sang beautiful plush soft chords, with many shades and colors. Verdi has structured the work as a sort of opposition between chorus and four soloists, as was noted in the excellent program notes. He spends a lot more time on the terrifying aspects of death and its aftermath Dies Irae, which always comes back just when the more comforting portions seem to be gaining a foothold.

The four soloists were all up to the operatic demands of their parts, but special mention must be made of Claudia Chapa, a Mexican mezzo-soprano, who has the true Verdi heft and color in her powerful voice. Tenor John Pickle also sang with thrilling squillo in a true Italian style that was entirely appropriate. The bass, Christopher Job, possesses a sound that is brighter and more forward-placed than I am used to for Verdi, but created a haunting and wonderful effect with his three descending Mors. Soprano Penelope Shumate created some lovely pianissimo floaty high notes, and these were her best quality, which is no small achievement. However, in other heftier spots, she risked being overwhelmed by the orchestra; and she didn’t have the requisite raw chest tones for the concluding Libera me Domine, the one that’s down an octave in the soprano’s “vulnerable” range. She and Chapa did have some gorgeous moments when they were each singing softly an octave apart.

From the first hushed descending minor triad of the orchestra, it was clear that the freelance group that calls itself the Distinguished Concerts Orchestra was in full command of the colors this score requires. I wish they were credited in the program, so I could single out some of the solo players, including the concertmaster, and numerous wind players. Also, what Verdi Requiem would be complete without the monstrous and scary “Thwack!” of the tympani in the Dies Irae? Here, it was entirely fulfilled, with what must be one of the tympanist’s most enjoyable places in the repertoire.

Verdi’s Requiem does not have the In Paradisum section that some other Requiems do, but the audience was certainly “In Paradise” and leapt to its feet for a deserved ovation.