IN: Reviews

205-Year-Old Presenter Makes Virtual of Necessity


The now ancient Handel and Haydn Society, hard pressed to avoid breaking its winning streak of annual Messiah performances, has broken forth in a chimeric Covideo with WGBH. Through prerecorded accompaniment (a la karaoke) to underpin the layers of remote brass and choristers, an interesting sound and light show comes now to our media devices, to mingle in the company of hundreds of traversals of this indestructible masterpiece currently in play over the Worldwide Holiday Web. Take your choice: Messiah lite or a deeper dive.

Clearly this would have to be an undertaking different from the obligatory albeit heartfelt and dramatic annual affair. And since so many today feel like foundlings, the pared-down early version probably made the best impression in our homes. Planning to witness the ministrations of the Lebensraumed H + H Period Orchestra and Chorus over both a 10-ft projection setup tuned to WGBH and a good-sized 4K computer monitor serving up YouTube, we wondered which would better share the meaning and mystery inherent in Handel’s music and Jennens’s conveyance of the Word.

Sorry to say it, but something of a misbegetting resulted from competing priorities in shoehorning an abridgment of Handel’s masterwork into an aspiringly slick product to fill a 55-minute public TV slot. The eye-candy travelogues of Boston, occupying a significant portion of the screen time, strove for relevance but achieved chiefly bathos. “People walking in Darkness” = Sumner Tunnel, “have seen the great light” = Zakim Bridge with colored floodlighting and trailing headlights. And then there were the obligatory Covid victims and lines of people waiting (for no apparent reason) with grocery carts. Why Fenway Park and the Bunker Hill Monument? Harvard Stadium? Stock shots of empty discount shelves?

The visuals also provided equal time to menorahs and mosques and a Buddha so as not to offend … whom? Uptight non-Christians? More likely uptight Christians. Is this how outreach should be done?

All of this while chyrons of coming attractions intermittently scrolled and a digital corporate watermark persisted. Try that at Symphony Hall.

Yes, singers and players in a Fraser Studio red-lit, as if hell on SNL or for the statue scene in Don Giovanni, shared the often-split screen with the ads and bathetic images. As our earlier article [HERE] explained, layering up all the forces (aurally and visually) in this time of distancing entailed tremendous discipline and technical skill, but the techniques commanded almost as much of our attention as the precisely and deftly conveyed music.

Well-chosen Fraser shots changed every few seconds and gracious editing smoothed over any rough joins within the (apparent) multiple takes. But because of all the required manipulation, the live performance qualities of spontaneity, repose, surprise, shaping, and rapture largely went missing in the zeal just to fit all the pieces together perfectly. Worse, it felt really odd how the numbers had to slam together without the least pause for reflection or dramatic sense.

In the penultimate number of Part One, “Come unto Him, all ye that labor, and He will give you rest,” soprano Joélle Harvey, despite being masked, communicated with empathy, refinement, and beauty of tone … but in the blink of an eye “Hallelujah” sprang forth (with of course nary a nod to those 24 intervening numbers which had ended on the cutting room floor).

The sound came across as masked (no surprise), but also congested, and artificially reverberant in the layering manner of trying to get few to sound like many. Dynamic range was compressed to a paltry 15dBA, robbing big numbers of drama; “Hallelujah” with its trumpets and drums sounded little louder than the preceding quiet soprano aria, although part of that may have been due to conductor-harpsichordist Ian Watson’s small ribbed but tasteful approach.

Despite Watson’s livelier tempi for most sections than we would have expected*, he and the engineers’ brought singers and brass into clean agreement with the expert one-on-a-part strings and organ. The chorus got their sibilants and fricatives into perfect, albeit mask-filtered, alignment, but it remained a little distracting see how they relied on earbuds to achieve ensemble perfection. Male alto Reginald Mobley decorated his attractive lines with graceful ornamental devices. Aaron Sheehan proved himself once again to be a resourceful tenor. Baritone Sumner Thomson left us wanting more. But none of the latter three seemed to be projecting beyond the microphone.

Also, the covered visages of all necessarily muted their nonverbal communication.

For a worthy, one-off, lite and lithe attempt to keep faith with its musicians and its followers, H + H and WGBH have authored a very well-played, if strangely illustrated glossy Messiah coloring book. We expect that some people will enjoy it.

The H+H – WGBH Covideo runs free for the next couple of months on YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook.

* In Watson’s interpretation, Part One (minus the final chorus) ran 49 minutes. Timings of 12 examples on YouTube (minus the final chorus)  ran from 50 – 65 minutes, averaging 54 minutes. Enthusiasts of music video Messiahs should check out the version staged at the Theater an der Wien HERE; it packs an incredible wallop.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer


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

  1. Regrettably I must concur with this assessment. I give all kinds of credit to GBH and H&H for trying to do something that is not only different but resourceful, imaginative, and geared to the different pacing and emphasis that internet viewing demands. It is perhaps true, for instance, that most people really aren’t good for the whole Messiah under such circumstances.

    I also give enormous credit to Ian Watson and to all the soloists and players. I am old enough to remember the last of the Dunn years, and to say wholeheartedly that they were not vintage, and to say further than while things at H&H have improved steadily since then, I don’t remember anything quite so lively and on-the-nose as what they offer us today.

    The video elements in this presentation seem either too much or not enough, with respect to parochialism no less than other aspects. Still it’s good to see H&H keeping a tradition alive in the midst of many headwinds to which they might easily have surrendered.

    Comment by Josiah Fisk — December 21, 2020 at 9:39 pm

  2. Three would-be commenters failed the civility test for publication. They collectively advanced a thesis that I am an old, ungrateful, tone-deaf antichrist of a dog braying in the manger.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 22, 2020 at 11:04 am

  3. They also serve, who only age and bray.

    Comment by Vance Koven — December 22, 2020 at 11:59 am

  4. I completely disagree with Mr. Eiseman’s review. It reads like an arrogant statement criticizing a laudable effort by H&H and GBH. 2020 has been a very painful year for most of us. As you well know among the hardest hit by the pandemic are performers of all stripes. Thanks to these two organizations several instrumentalists and singers had an opportunity to do what they love most and earn a bit of money for their heart warming effort.
    I am not a music critic but I am a music lover. What we saw in this production was a successful effort to keep this old tradition alive in our beloved city. I would have been just as happy just seeing the Messiah without the views of our city. But since the producers decided to add these scenes I thought they were relevant as they took us on a journey of our city showing its beauty and its interconnectedness. The COVID scenes at the hospital and the long lines were pitch perfect as they memorialized why H&H and GBH made this production. Also, for me it reminded me how fortunate I am to have been able to watch this and to feel so connected to my city. Full disclosure I Live in Cambridge but regard Boston as being my city too.
    Finally, Mr Eiseman I think that your review should have shown some loving kindness something we all need. Instead you wrote a heartless and in the end meaningless piece.

    Comment by Carlos Neu — December 22, 2020 at 12:07 pm

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Neu. Also, comparing the timings of a studio-produced video, which necessarily has gaps between movements edited, and a snail’s-pace staged production of Messiah as an assessment of whether tempi are fast, slow, or whatever, is laughable. Your disdain for performances on old instruments is very obvious from this and other reviews of course, but that comparison is nonsensical.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — December 22, 2020 at 4:11 pm

  6. Did we watch the same concert? What I experienced was a select group of extremely talented musicians persevering under uniquely challenging conditions and creating an uplifting, polished, and buoyant production. I found the music-making to be of high caliber, the studio lighting and setting to be warm and tasteful, and the imagery of the health care workers and others suffering through this pandemic to be pitch-perfect. No need for such a mean-spirited and unrealistically persnickety review. Bravo and brava to the H+H Society and WGBH for providing some much-needed musical light during these dark times!

    [And, by the way, it’s ‘Sumner Tunnel,’ not ‘Summer Tunnel.’]

    Comment by Michael Rocha — December 22, 2020 at 4:53 pm

  7. PJ- Who says classical movements or sections have to be jammed together for broadcast? Only station managers who abhor dead air. Remember Robert J? He made great art of Luftpausen.

    And my raves of 2019 and 2015 H+H Messiahs should disprove your false charges that I harbor disdain for early instruments.

    My Grand Harmonie review from 2015 provides further proof:

    Comment by F. Lee Eiseman — December 22, 2020 at 5:12 pm

  8. I didn’t say movements were or were not jammed together – I said it is nonsensical to compare the timings of a studio-produced video with a stodgy German Opera House production of Messiah in order to prove your supposed point that tempi were faster than expected. Which they aren’t, in my opinion.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — December 22, 2020 at 5:39 pm

  9. Whatever…rushed or not rushed, dunno if it set a course record, but it sure sounded lithe and lively, as I said. I also said the version they chose was appropriate to the medium.

    I compared a dozen versions…and the decidedly un-stodgy Viennese (not German) production was not the longest or slowest. Furthermore, I supported the choice of the “lithe and lively” one-on-a-part take.

    So what’s the big deal?

    We can argue more offline if you like.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 22, 2020 at 5:57 pm

  10. Unlike a concert, which lives in the moment, everybody can now view the video for some time and reach their own conclusions. I find the video a moving gift in these troubled times. To each his own I suppose.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — December 22, 2020 at 6:14 pm

  11. Stunning and amazing use of the technology. Handel and Haydn Society at their best – just the uplift that we needed during this difficult time. My only wish was that the video clips focused more on the performance than the depressing scenes from the past year.
    Otherwise, it was perfect!
    Thank you WGBH and H&H S!

    Comment by GA — December 23, 2020 at 11:12 am

  12. “……We expect that some people will enjoy it……”. Ouch! I was impressed by this collaborative effort both musically and technically and hoping it will reach a wider audience which truthfully the musical arts will need when after vaccines have been administered to the appropriate percentage of the population and concert halls reopen with hopefully repertoire programming that will encourage a broader cross section of potential audience members such that when we look down from the balcony we don’t just see a swath of grey heads.
    I sent the ‘Messiah in Our Time’ link to my 3 daughters all in their 30’s and 40’s and who are now scattered around the country but who all grew up in Greater Boston, they loved the musical ‘presentation’ but appreciated the accompanying photo/video scans of the city.

    Comment by Martin Snow — December 25, 2020 at 12:29 pm

  13. The theme of 2020 is “It’s Better Than Nothing.” Every virtual performance I have seen has been lacking in one way or another. I think this is not controversial, even among presenters.

    Each listener must frame this lack as they encounter each artifact. For many, the mere fact that these things exist at all, despite their faults, is enough to suspend, or at least blunt, critical judgment. Carlos Neu’s statement that he is not a “music critic” but a “music lover” is one way of explaining that emphasis. GA and Michael Rocha appeal to “uplift” during a “challenging” or “difficult” times. I know what they mean. I experienced vivid “uplift” this summer by sitting through a few Bang on a Can marathons. I was thrilled to hear people play music sitting in their rooms, playing solo music for us: a pure need to perform connected with a pure need to hear.

    Nevertheless, I think Lee’s review is hardly “mean-spirited” as Neu has it, and apologies to GA, but I doubt anyone even at H&H thinks this is them “at their best.” I think Eiseman and Rocha are pointing at the same quality of the piece when one uses the term “slick” and the other “polished” – which is to say, it is something other than spontaneous, live or rough. A claustrophobic air hovers around this performance, due in part to the “stunning and amazing use of the technology” per GA. The use of “COVID” images is inarguably heavy-handed: whether you find that to be distracting or “pitch perfect” (Rocha) is something worth discussing. And perhaps it’s just because I’m a callous ass, but the very idea that a music critic should have shown “loving kindness” (Neu) misunderstands the purpose of criticism in the first place.

    Despite all that, it turns out that we all agree this H&H Messiah is Better Than Nothing; we disagree on how much better than nothing it might be. The review grinds its complaints pretty fine. I think it is straightforward enough to wonder why a “slick/polished” production with admirable “technology” was needed when a simple live performance by the same forces would have been just as moving. Why anyone wants to defend the use of the Messiah as underscoring – whether to the Zakim bridge or to supermarket shelves devoid of toilet paper – is beyond me. But at least we have an H&H Messiah in 2020. It’s better than nothing.

    Comment by Brian Schuth — December 26, 2020 at 6:53 pm

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