Distinguished Concerts International New York has long been bringing large choruses to this city to perform in concerts with soloists and a fine freelance orchestra. I have heard them before, usually presenting very exciting performances of contemporary works. And today’s performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” entitled “Messiah…Refreshed!”, did have a 20th century component, as it utilized the Eugene Goosens re-orchestration for full symphony orchestra commissioned by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1959. I was very excited to hear this orchestration again, for I remember enjoying it with great guilty pleasure during my college days. This review will contain no discussion of Baroque performance practice, for this orchestration unashamedly does not care about such things. Historical accuracy was of no interest to Sir Thomas. As he said: “A musicologist is a man who can read music but can’t hear it.”
The performance did not turn out to be a slavish recreation of the 1959 recording by Sir Thomas Beecham. Just as a realistic painter, once he has mastered the rules of perspective and can no longer create convincing primitive landscapes, a fine musician such as Maestro Jonathan Griffith could not allow himself to use the often lugubrious tempi stipulated by Thomas Beecham. Neither could the soloists forget all they have learned about ornamentation. So although the performance was an inconstant recreation, it was far more musical than the original.
The members of today’s chorus, the Distinguished Concerts Singers International, were drawn from choruses located in seven of the United States and two foreign countries. I have been most impressed by the DCINY choruses that I’ve heard in the past. But they never had to negotiate the quick coloratura passages which today’s chorus was called upon to perform. Although their performance of chordal sections was often stirring–on the words “wonderful, counselor” in the chorus “For unto us a child is born”, for instance–the same cannot be said for the sixteenth-note runs which each section is called upon to sing in this and many other movements. I am reminded of another statement by Sir Thomas Beecham, said to have made while exhorting a chorus during a rehearsal of “For unto us a child is born:” “Ladies, please think of the joy of conception, not the pain of childbirth.” Save for the coloratura sections, the choral singing was more than adequate, what one would expect from over 200 people singing “Messiah.”
The soloists were successful to varying degrees. Countertenor Nicholas Tamanga stood out with his beautiful tone and attention to the meaning of the words. But the use of a countertenor instead of a mezzo-soprano/alto was anomalous, something which didn’t fit into this souped-up-retro-version of “Messiah.” Tenor Ryan MacPherson performed his solos with ease, exhibiting a fine tenor voice in all parts of his range. Bass Michael Scarcelle also sang well, but at times had trouble keeping together with the orchestra. I’ve rejected all of the words which I’ve thought of to describe the singing of soprano Sara Jean Ford, as I don’t want to seem unkind. She was just not up to performing this great Baroque work. Her singing was expressionless, distant, and uncommunicative.
The mighty orchestra was fine, although the timpanist seemed a bit overzealous at times. I chuckled at the cymbal rolls on the words “for he is like a refiner’s fire.” And guiltily enjoyed the flute obbligatos in “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion.” It is interesting to note that, since in this orchestration the trumpets and timpani were playing a good deal of the time, their impact in the few movements in which they appeared in Handel’s original score was weakened. But the overall sound was thrilling.
I can fully understand why–at the end of the performance–the audience responded with fervent and heartfelt applause. Those who knew members of the chorus were thrilled to hear their friends, neighbors and members of their family performing this great work in a New York concert hall with a huge orchestra under the direction of a fine conductor. For most of the audience, matters of Baroque performance practice were not concerns. Most of the things I have discussed in the preceding paragraphs meant nothing to them, and rightly so; they heard a well-paced performance of a beloved masterwork with a Technicolor orchestration, and they responded accordingly. A good time was had by all, including this reviewer.