The Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum rang in the University’s holiday season with a distinguished, richly contextualized Messiah on Friday evening at Sanders Memorial Theater in Cambridge. Featuring introductory remarks by Thomas Forrest Kelly, Morton B. Knapfel Professor of Music at Harvard, the performance sought to recreate the excitement of the work’s 1742 Dublin premiere while shortening the work to highlight its most seasonally appropriate passages, and succeeded in embodying tradition in its finest and most expansive sense.
Hearing the piece introduced by the unfailingly engaging author of First Nights gave particular pleasure. I expected expertise and entertainment in equal measure (Kelly’s remarkable Capturing Music collaboration with Blue Heron last season will live long in my memory), and was not disappointed. In addition to scholarly authority, Kelly brought fun to the proceedings, his relaxed style appealing to expert and novice alike. He described the economic benefits of presenting oratorio instead of opera, noting that singing in the vernacular with local talent eliminated the need to import “million-dollar choruses” and “fancy [star] castratos.” At one point he enjoined Music Director Andrew Clark to don an oversized “Handel wig” by way of a visual aid; a grinning Clark readily obliged and remained bewigged throughout the remainder of the lecture. Kelly employed the orchestra and soloists to demonstrate Handel’s musical borrowing, including a juxtaposition of “No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi,” (HWV 189) with “For unto us a child is born.” Projected Georgian-era illustrations of the Music Hall in Fishamble Street where Messiah debuted joined present-day photos of the George Frederic Handel hotel that now occupies the same block, while quotations from early champions and critics of the work reminded us that this warhorse of choral repertoire was not always seen as the beloved holiday classic we think of today.
Following the introduction, Clark and his forces began with a reading of the Sinfony that combined vigor with restrained dignity, an aesthetic that was to characterize most of what followed. Clark’s joy in this piece and his ensemble was evident his every moment sharing Messiah with his colleagues and audience. Embodying ebullience and discipline simultaneously, he led with prodigious energy yet remarkable restraint. His fully energized yet minimal gestures proved capable of regulating tempi, dynamics and shaping phrasing with the slightest motion. This is a conductor who wastes nothing, and is in complete command.
Twenty-three professional instrumentalists joined students of the Collegium; all played with finesse, taste and accomplishment. One felt that Clark was obliged at times to restrain dynamics to accommodate some of the student soloists, not all of whom would have been otherwise able to cut through a large ensemble and fill Sanders. Despite these necessary strictures, however, the instruments were able to achieve an array of coloristic effects through subtle dynamic shifts and diamond-cut articulations. The violins and violas played with consistent warmth and spirit, their vibrancy bringing a glow to “Behold a virgin shall conceive” while their dreamy trills meandered pleasantly through the “Pifa.” The cellos were the true actors of the evening, contributing evocative tremolos to “But who may abide” and a reassuring depth to “He shall feed His flock”. Harpsichordist Edward Jones guided the recitatives with refinement and assurance, while timpanist Robert Schulz provided brilliant percussive punctuation the work’s grandest moments.
Arias and vocal solos were parceled among a dozen undergraduates, presumably to spotlight as many as possible. Each soloist displayed an impressive grasp of the technical and stylistic demands of the piece, though richness of textual interpretations varied between singers. This said, a number of individual performances stand out for all-around expressive and technical brilliance. Brian Ventura commanded outstanding breath control and lent his round, full, unusually bright bass to “Behold I tell you a mystery” and “The trumpet shall sound”. Ventura’s voice was nicely matched with Eric Berlin’s trumpet, their resplendent duet hinting at the coming glory of the Lord as described in the text. It was Maddie Studt, however, who provided the most satisfying vocalism of the evening. Studt’s surpassingly lovely, remarkably mature alto brought “But Who May Abide” fully to life, her burnished gold sound infusing the line with great warmth and depth. I was pleased to read that the senior Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations major intends to make singing her profession; hers is an exceptionally promising young voice, beautifully suited to the Baroque repertoire.
The vocal ensemble itself sang with exceptional purity, unity and crystalline precision. Their diction was flawless, perhaps the best I’ve ever heard in an undergraduate chorus, and among the best I’ve heard in any vocal ensemble. They conveyed particular delight in their interpretation of the two yuletide “hit tunes”—“For unto us a child is born” and of course, “Hallelujah.” (I am pleased to report that, in keeping with yet another music-historical tradition, many in the audience leapt to their feet at the start of the latter iconic movement; the remainder of the crowd followed suit, momentary confusion giving way to fascination.) Collegium’s sound remained crisp and polished, yet undeniably youthful throughout. This last descriptor is hardly meant as a pejorative; rather, the radiant clarity of these voices seemed to wash away the detritus of the tumultuous world outside the concert hall, allowing the audience to believe, if only for a few hours, in the possibility of peace on earth, goodwill to all.
At the close of his remarks, Kelly referenced the controversy Messiah engendered vis à vis it’s claims to status as a sacred work; early critics—among them Jonathan Swift—were incensed that a piece with purported theological aims should be performed outside a church setting, and that the audience should be charged admission. In answer to this centuries-old criticism, Kelly remarked, “I think it’s a fine thing to pay money to listen to sacred music. It combines a lot of good things.” In this particular instance he is absolutely right; half the proceeds of Friday’s event went to benefit Y2Y Harvard Square, the university-associated shelter for homeless young adults. This too, is in keeping with the finest tradition of Messiah; the premiere served as a benefit concert for three of Handel’s favorite charitable organizations, one of which, the Foundling Hospital (known today as Coram) remained a beneficiary of the composer’s generosity throughout his lifetime and in his will.
The word “tradition” seems always to carry with it a whiff of pretension and suspicions of obsolescence, especially to the young. But Collegium’s adherence to the spirit rather than letter of performance tradition allowed an acknowledged mainstay of the canon to gain new significance, connecting its listeners to our cultural past and pointing us toward the future. As Clark notes “we celebrate the spirit of Handel’s creative philanthropy and consider Messiah as not only a cherished treasure of Western culture, but also as an exemplar for how art might contribute to a more just society, now and in the future.” I can think of no finer grounds on which to revisit this time-honored work, and no better way to inaugurate this season of hope and generosity.