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 Messiah . . . Refreshed! in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Messiah . . . Refreshed! in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Messiah . . . Refreshed!
Eugene Goossens’s and Thomas Beecham’s 1959 re-orchestration for full symphony orchestra.
Jonathan Griffith, conductor
Penelope Shumate, soprano; Holly Sorenson, mezzo-soprano; John McVeigh, tenor; Christopher Job, bass/baritone
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, NY
November 30, 2014
 

Okay purists, put down the lorgnettes and stop sniffing in disdain. Absolutely no Messiahs were harmed in the making of this Messiah. Quite the contrary, a mostly thrilling and detailed performance of this evergreen work, full of passion and commitment, took place on November 30th at Avery Fisher Hall. Messiah is the one work that overshadows absolutely everything else in Handel’s output.

Let’s get the bad jokes out of the way now: “Messiah Inflated,” “The Biggest Gainer,” “Enlarge Ye my Orchestra.” Feel better? Gigantism began creeping into the work even in Handel’s time, with the famous English choral societies often numbering in the hundreds. This was the age of absolute rulers—palaces and pomp. And no less a genius than Mozart thought fit to re-instrument it for his time and style. These practical men of music didn’t suffer from the stilting reverence of which we are often guilty. If we are going to perform this work in a hall that seats 3000, some adjustment may be permitted.

With just a few cuts introduced by Eugene Goossens, the performance clocked in at about 2 hours 40 minutes, the same as on my Christopher Hogwood ground-breaking “historically informed” recording from the 1980s. Conductor Jonathan Griffith led the massed forces with great energy and a compromise approach, including some stylish double dotting, but broader tempi to accommodate the increased instrumental sound. He also introduced some very “grand old British gentleman” ritards which were absolutely welcome. I don’t know if that was his innate musicality, or if they were specified by Goossens or Beecham. The only minor annoyance was the presence of the triangle and cymbal, neither of which added much to my enjoyment.

The “Pifa,” or Pastoral Symphony that is in Part I was absolutely magical in the pianissimo return of the theme, played by a smaller cohort with pinpoint style and hushed, awestruck beauty.

When the chorus entered for its first number “And the glory of the Lord,” the sound was absolutely thrilling. These choristers are a cosmopolitan bunch, from France, Brazil, Guatemala, Georgia, Kansas, Hong Kong, Wisconsin, New York, Australia, Tennessee, Missouri, and Germany, obviously so well prepared by their local conductors that they can travel to New York and put themselves together with Maestro Griffith and his orchestra, who brought great unity and color variety to their singing, which was never generic, and was most exciting in the full-voiced passages. Their clarity and rhythmic vitality was very good in the difficult chains of sixteenth notes.

The four soloists were also excellent, with visible involvement in their texts, crystal clear diction, and stamina. Tenor John McVeigh has a sweet lyrical voice that would sound well in front of a Baroque orchestra as well. His “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow” was a highlight of the tenor-heavy Part II.

 

Messiah...Refreshed!

Messiah…Refreshed!

 

Soprano Penelope Shumate was a real find for me, with a voice that has been described previously in New York Concert Review as “radiant,” and I can see why. The clear tones were true and expressive, one of the best “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” that I have ever heard live. Her “I know that my redeemer liveth” was lovely.

The mezzo-soprano, Holly Sorenson, had perhaps the hardest job being heard over the increased orchestration, no fault of hers, but an accident of the lower tessitura. Her “He was despised” was lovely and appropriately grief-stricken, but I wanted to hear the middle section and da capo (shame on Goossens for this one).

Bass-baritone Christopher Job avoided the hollow, sepulchral tones that one sometimes hears from true basses. His voice ideally suited the punishing “The trumpet shall sound,” and was every bit the match for the clarino trumpet (excellently played). However, I would have wished for a darker color on “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,” which he did beautifully on “Behold, I tell you a mystery,” with “mystery” having its own special mysticism reflected in the voice.

Griffith found a nuance I had only heard once before (in a “historically informed” performance by Les Arts Florissants): the lightening of the voices in the chorus “His yoke is easy and his burden is light” on the final two words, perfectly realized tone painting. The Hallelujah chorus and the concluding “Worthy is the lamb that was slain” and fugal “Amen” benefited from two extra “ambush” antiphonal choirs placed in the left and right balconies of Avery Fisher Hall. The proximity of the sound to the audience only added to the grand intensity of these seminal moments.

Worthy indeed, was this Messiah.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) in Review

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; Laura Strickling, soprano; Teresa Buchholz, mezzo-soprano; John McVeigh, tenor; Christopher Job, bass
Avery Fisher Hall; Lincoln Center, New York, NY
December 1, 2013
 
 
 
Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY)

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY); Photo credit: Nan Melville

 

Two years ago, I wrote a review for this publication (“MESSIAH…REFRESHED!” November 27, 2011) of a DCINY performance of Handel’s Messiah, which used a re-orchestration of the original score for full symphony orchestra. This massive orchestration (full woodwinds and brass, large percussion battery, and two harps) by Eugene Goossens was written upon a commission from the English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. In that review I used my two favorite “Beecham stories” which, of course, I can’t use again. Interested readers can refer back to the November 27, 2011 review  by clicking here- Messiah Refreshed review 2011.

Hearing Maestro Griffith conduct this work for a second time, I can see how he is trying to balance his innate musicianship, which is of the highest level, with his desire to perform this work as stipulated in Goossens’s score and Beecham’s 1959 recording. It is an interesting problem that has many solutions. By omitting some movements, mostly in Part III, Goossens’s score transformed Handel’s three-part oratorio into a two-part work with a single intermission. He also omitted the “b” section, and therefore the da capo, of two quite long arias, “He was despised,” and “The trumpet shall sound.” Maestro Griffith omitted what Goossens omitted, but he did not take the ponderously slow tempi one hears on the 1959 Beecham recording. But what does one do with ornamentation? There is none in either the Goossens score or the Beecham recording. While this afternoon’s vocal soloists added many ornaments to their vocal lines, none appeared at cadences. For this listener one either follows the non-ornamented Goossens score to the letter or incorporates all we have learned about baroque music since 1959. It seems that Maestro Griffith has pondered this question long and hard, and his feelings are evolving. I admire that and look forward to the results of his ongoing thinking.

Over the years I have thought that the Distinguished Concerts Orchestra was made of freelance musicians brought together just for a specific concert. I have just learned that they are a permanent group, the in-house orchestra of DCINY, and a fine group they are. The fleet-of-foot-tempi chosen by Maestro Griffith might have taxed even a small baroque band, but this massive orchestra performed them with ease and clarity. Except for the booming timpani, the balances were perfect. The wind solos, especially the trumpet in “The trumpet shall sound,” were beautifully played.

The four vocal soloists were all first-rate, making it hard to pick out the high points, but here are a few: Soprano Laura Strickling’s thrilling coloratura in “Rejoice greatly” – the fast tempo allowed her to sing the inhumanly long vocal lines in one breath. Mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz’s delivered a most moving rendition of “He was despised” – her voice is beautiful in all parts of her register. I especially loved the plummy low notes. I do wish that Goossens had scored the entire aria. Tenor John McVeigh was a last minute substitution for the scheduled tenor, but one would not have thought so from his assured performance. He sang his opening recitative, “Comport ye,” with beautiful floating tone, and his “Thou shalt break them” had great dramatic fire. Bass Christopher Job was my favorite soloist, although he and Mr. McVeigh tended to rush a bit during their coloratura passages. His voice is thrilling from top to bottom, and his performance of “But who may abide” and “The trumpet shall sound” were, for this listener, the concert’s most memorable moments.

The personnel of The Distinguished Concerts Singers International changes for each performance. This afternoon there were 243 singers on the stage. During the “Hallelujah” and “Worthy is the lamb” they were joined by another 220 singers seated in the first and second tiers of the hall nearest the stage. That makes a total of 463 singers! And a mighty sound it was! Most were members of twelve choruses from the United States, Canada, Australia and China. Also singing were music teachers from the New York City public schools and, as the program stated, “individuals from around the globe.”  The chordal sections of the choruses were beautifully sung with a thrilling sound, but many of the polyphonic passages were a different matter, exposing problems of pitch and ensemble.

The excitement in the hall, even before the music began, was palpable. At the end of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the audience members could hardly contain themselves. Most thrilling, however, was the explosion of applause and bravos which followed hard on the completion of the final “Amen.” And it was justified. The audience of Messiah lovers, friends, neighbors, and family members of the chorus did not have matters of baroque performance practice on their minds. They had just experienced a heartfelt performance of a beloved masterpiece under the direction of a fine conductor. What a fine way to celebrate the beginning of another holiday season!