Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) in Review

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.

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) in Review

Jonathan Griffith, conductor
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
November 27, 2011

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.