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HIP with Heart: A Messiah that Scats

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Soprano Elizabeth Watts and Masaaki Suzuki (Sam Brewer photo)
Dashon Burton (Tatiana-Daubek photo)

By inviting a distinguished guest conductor to lead this season’s three Symphony Hall performances (I attended Sunday), the Handel and Haydn Society reformed a messianic tradition fraught with year-to-year sameness. The acclaimed Japanese-born Bach interpreter Masaaki Suzuki 鈴木 雅明 has a broad musical worldview, which stretches past his beloved master to Haydn, Beethoven, and even Mahler. His training in improvisation and his reported Calvinist bent seemed to inform his refreshing take on our hallowed holiday tradition.

The opening bars of the overture to Handel’s Messiah at once disclosed Suzuki’s plan: HIP with heart. Yes, the dotted notes from the 28 executants were very dotty, and yes, we had no vibrato (from the orchestra or chorus), but this fleet and clean vernacular came from a deep well of emotions as well as from the pages of a well-thumbed stylebook. Employing unusually marked and generally inevitable-sounding articulations, Suzuki broke forth with tremendous expressive freedom, and most importantly, gracious and never-dainty tone; the strings never scratched and never resorted to short little swells on notes. Rather, they arched in well-considered phrases. Runs had clear destinations and even the string tremolos took on variety and shape. The overture did its job—encouraging us to anticipate the arrival of something big.

Yes, I know that legato on repeated notes is an impossibility, but the band introduced “Comfort Ye My People” with a warm connectedness rather than with the mannered over-separation of notes that some early-music aficionados expect. Nicholas Phan deployed a brightly sonorous and laser-focused tenor to “Prepare the way for the Lord.” His melismas and ornamentation heightened rather than obscured his prophetic delivery of the words.

Suzuki licensed similar improvisatory, melismatic scat from all the soloists. As long as they respected bar lines, they could do whatever they chose; rarely did they veer into the vain things. One imagines that in each of three performances they surprised their smiling conductor.

In the first choral number, “And the glory of the Lord,” the H + H 30-voiced professional chorus shone forth with its commendable virtues: clear delineation of details within well-shaped phrases. Their enunciation and rapid articulation reached instrumental purity. In sustained passages, the tuning sounded pungently pure. The sections achieved singularity rather than collectivity of tone. The yeoman tenors’ intensity particularly impressed in the many imitative entrances. They also showed themselves to be eager adepts in the straight-toned style. I could not make up my mind about the sopranos. Sans vibration, they approached boyishness, but with a hootiness that slight curves in the straightness might have ameliorated. Suzuki’s heightened awareness of words and storytelling sometimes led to macho text articulations which came across as early Sprechstimme, such as in the extremely effective sotto-voce, “Since by man came…. Death.”

Suzuki’s reading had qualities of a page-turner novel, especially in how he shortened the pauses between sections.  After the opening chorus concluded on the words, “…for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it,” an imposing Dashon Burton opened his mouth and intoned attacca, “Thus saith the Lord…I will shake the heavens.” And so he did, with theatrical and biblical brilliance, this man of action threatening the balconies, the columns, and the floor as if he were playing Samson. Keep ever-long those dreadlocks, dude!

Then another large guy stepped out, this one at home in the alto range. Reginald Mobley placed his sweet-toned countertenor in a very pleasing groove, which allowed him to scat through an unbe-effing-lievable floridity of ornamentation, including a tremulous trill that could grow almost into a smiling weapon. Not as consoling as a true contralto in “But who may Abide,” and perhaps the least emotionally engaged of the four soloists, he found an ally in Handel’s unbested wordpainting, which thankfully anticipated Mobley’s smooth break to a baritonal bottom in the “Refiner’s Fire” portion of the aria.  

Particularly in “How beautiful are the feet…,” soprano Elizabeth Watts professed the true-believer’s glad tidings in powerfully produced emotional radiance. All night she engaged with the text, her fellow performers, and her votaries in the SRO-crowd with voice and visage attuned to the vocal and textural drama, sometimes stopping the passage of time altogether. The consoling mystery she channeled in “Come unto Him” made abundantly clear why she deserved the Kathleen Ferrier prize.

Not every tempo choice struck this listener as entirely apt. The introduction to “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,” proceeded with too much dancy energy before Burton’s steady conviction returned us to the story. And “Let us break their bonds asunder” evoked plastic cable ties rather than wrought-iron bonds. The Pastoral Symphony never relaxed, rather coming across with unbecoming sway, almost like bagpipes at a country fair. Nor did the 58 singers and instrumentalists break forth with as much relative dramatic force in the biggest choral numbers as Dashon Burton did in his solos.

Masaaki Suzuki and Aislinn Nosky (Sam Brewer photo)

Overall, though, H+ H covered itself in glory. Thanks be to them for Boston’s best professional chorus and the wisdom to bring in a conductor with a personal message. Kudos to the 99.9% pure trumpeting of Jesse Levine and the addition of the soloists to the final wrinkle of the multifold Amen.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. …well well Maestro Eiseman bravo, a gem, a review deserving to be included in a time capsule for future generations to enjoy!!

    Comment by Martin Snow — December 2, 2019 at 3:46 pm

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