IN: Reviews

Mo’ Messiah, Mo’ Problems

by

Ann McMahon Quintero (file photo)

Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn and caldron bubble,
Two Messiahs in a week is
Not a recipe for bleakest
Misanthropic’ly chilled blood
To warm with charm both firm and good.

Boston Baroque’s Messiah opened yesterday in Jordan Hall, with a second performance slated for this evening. Even ardent advocates of Handel plead once-a-year sufficiency for his perennially popular oratorio, the eternal ineluctability of which the Globe’s Zoë Madonna has likened to death and taxes. After Handel and Haydn Society’s annual outing last weekend [my Globe review HERE, and BMInt’s HERE], I risked overexposure primarily to hear Boston’s most beloved soprano Amanda Forsythe in a second helping after her be-still-my-heart-and-let-me-follow-her-to-Hades turn as Eurydice in Boston Early Music Festival’s La Storia di Orfeo, also a mere six days ago. (In what riches we revel!)

Forsythe did not disappoint. The ninth-century poet Bo Juyi once wrote of a pipa (Asian lute) performance that, cutting between torrents of rain and tender pillowtalk, sounded like “large pearls, small pearls falling on a jade platter,” just as various-sized raindrops might on a lotus leaf. Thus ran Forsythe’s “Rejoice greatly,” and her sinuous, satiny, soprano—at times so sensual as to be almost obscene were it not of such shimmering beauty—livened any passage it graced, despite some tempo choices that might have drawn out one’s patience without her presence.

Also impressive, Ann McMahon Quintero (billed as a mezzo-soprano, though she strikes my ear as that much rarer treasure, a true contralto) served a paprika-spiced dark hot chocolate with a dash of whiskey, satisfying deep into the bones on a chilly evening. Clad in a sparkling emerald gown next to Forsythe’s bright red, the most luminous color combination of the evening shone even more vividly in the rich umber alto foundation from which the soprano’s azure and lilac took flight in “He shall feed His flock.”

Tenor Thomas Cooley often rang a baritonal tone and baritone Andrew Garland seemed to dig deeper into a gravely bass territory. Stiffer than last week’s H+H counterparts, both exhibited signs of strain at beginning and end.

The 24-voice chorus stood in mixed, rather than block-sectional, formation. Ideally, such arrangement integrates an even, fuller blend of parts into a single breathing organism. Absent accuracy across the board, however, what ought to be a clear stream quickly flows turbid, just as mixture of too many individual paints together inevitably bears forth a muddy grayish brown. This becomes especially notable in fugues, when voices to each part must move as one, so every thread can maintain distinct integrity as the tapestry weaves together. Jaggedness within parts creates instead a matted felt with little pills that distract and detract from the greater picture. Robust and rousing in passages that require more expansive harmony than contrapuntal structure or interpretive subtlety, this chorus certainly has good singers who could achieve greater eloquence with better guidance on the latter fronts.

Amanda Forsythe (file photo)

Led by music director Martin Pearlman at the harpsichord, the orchestra of 25 included more than a quarter who had just finished the H+H Messiah last weekend, thus casting into sharper contrast the two renditions. Lack of skill among the choral-orchestral forces is not the cause of comparative dullness here. The raw materials are present and primed. The problem lies in how to sculpt them.

Boston Baroque proceeds on surest footing when striding forth with a strong, slashing step, or when the music warrants a rhythmic boom that obliterates any need for finer-shaping. A more engaged range of dynamics, tempi, expression, coloration elsewhere would also enhance those strengths. Again, I fixate on “All we, like sheep,” which here marched on in the same mezzoforte as any other choral passage—no light prance of spring lambs, no labyrinthine wanderings “gone astray,” no sudden descent of hushed awe and somberness when “the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” To Pearlman’s credit, Boston Baroque ran no risk of ornate hyperbole, as can often be the danger in less fortunate locales than Boston, but I could not help missing the fully variegated landscapes of H+H’s excursion, where ev’ry valley was exalted by digging deeper, and ev’ry mountain not laid low, but layered to greater heights with nuance and sly invention.

I hate to dent anyone else’s delight. One always takes joy and comfort to see music move audiences as Boston Baroque’s Messiah visibly did, and I mean this genuinely, not in “Bless their heart” condemnation.

In that fundamental regard, the concert delivered: serviceable, but short of sublime. A solidly built cabinet, containing two transcendent female soloists as its curiosities.

CJ Ru, Yale PhD candidate in history, previously served tours of duty in the administrative offices of San Francisco Opera and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale. 

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  1. We’ve been hearing Marty’s Messiah nearly as long as he’s been presenting it, and to my ear it’s the most unaffected, straight-forward, no-nonsense rendition of the piece one can hear in Boston. The tempi are perfect, the band and chorus pure delight, and his choice of soloists, varying from year to year, seldom disappoints, though I do agree that we’ve had better tenors in years past

    Comment by Jaylyn — December 9, 2019 at 10:37 am

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