It seemed unlikely to work – an orchestra of 27 players and 130 singers – but the performance of Handel’s Messiah presented by the Cambridge Community Chorus on Sunday, December 13, 2009, at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium was a delight to hear. The success was no accident. The orchestra was full of young faces, inspired and eager. Jamie Kirsch conducted with enormous energy, dancing on the podium with huge gestures, pulling the whole show along with grace and vitality. The soloists were more than up to the task, and the acoustics in Kresge – often a bit muddy – were unusually clear, drawing the audience into the excitement of the performance. Every syllable of the text was audible throughout the hall – a tribute to the soloists and chorus but also to the acoustics. It was a rare delight to hear this piece with no need for a libretto or surtitles.
Although beloved by choruses worldwide, Handel’s Messiah really belongs to the soloists and the orchestra, and in this performance both were terrific. The chorus was well-prepared, singing with enthusiasm and surprisingly good pitch. The amateur voices were many – but not overly strong, and their diction was excellent. In spite of the imbalance of numbers the balance between the chorus and orchestra was good.
The first few notes from the orchestra and the tenor soloist Lawrence Jones set the scene: great clarity and uniformity of pitch in the strings, perfect intonation and diction from the tenor. Krista River (my favorite) sang the alto part with wonderful emotional sensitivity. Robert Honeysucker used his powerful instrument to crowd pleasing effect. Deborah Selig (the soprano) showed a bit of stage fright. At the beginnings of her arias the vibrato was wide and rapid, interfering with both pitch and text. (The emotional impact of a word like “corruption” is blunted when the vibrato is too high.) But she got the wobbles under control as she sang. The “Rejoice greatly” aria was moving, especially “He shall speak peace.” The audience applauded.
The unusual clarity of the sound deserves mention. Like many other pieces the Messiah is musical theater as well as music. Drama theaters (and movie theaters) are acoustically dry for a good reason: drama directors know that when the performers are perceived by the brain as acoustically close to the listeners, the sound requires that the listeners pay attention. An emotional bond is established. When there are too many reflections – particularly early reflections – the performers lose this acoustic closeness, and the drama suffers. The Kresge stage – large and surrounded by hard wood surfaces – often produces this muddy sound. But here the huge chorus completely filled the back of the stage, absorbing all the back-wall reflections. In addition, the orchestra and soloists were on the extended stage, well away from the side walls and close to the audience. Their sound had great dramatic clarity, making emotional contact at a primitive, visceral level. (The oboes and bassoon, stuck in the back next to the chorus, were not so lucky. I could rarely hear them.) The Holtcamp organ – also close to the audience – was wonderful to hear, and contributed some welcome bass energy in the final chorus. Kresge lacks the churchy reverberation that is so popular these days – but the audience engagement it provided greatly enhanced this performance.
Boston is blessed with several halls (Boston Symphony, Jordan, and Sanders) that provide both excellent emotional contact and a sense of reverberation. The acoustic excellence of these halls is well known, and they are in constant use. Other cities are not so blessed, and modern halls and operas are almost always built to favor reverberation over audience engagement. This performance showed that if you have to choose, clarity of sound should have a higher priority than reverberation.
All in all, a fine performance of a great piece.