Thirteen years into his tenure, Harry Christophers prestidigitated his last Messiah as the 13th Artistic Director of the Handel and Haydn Society. Three full-house traversals in Symphony Hall respectively notched the organization’s 2,454th, 2,545th, and 2,546th concerts in its 207 unbroken years of existence as well as its 439th, 440th, and 441st performance of Handel’s Messiah over 168 consecutive seasons. I heard the oratorio on Sunday afternoon.
The manner in which Boston’s beloved major league chorus and orchestra celebrated and quantified its statistics puts us in mind of Major League Baseball…and to continue that analogy, let’s wonder if the imminent departure of the estimable Christophers will amount to another Curse of the Bambino. The recent announcement of a “breathtaking” $10 anonymous million gift in his honor to extend his legacy for “decades to come” could instead provide a retention fund. Don’t let him go! Plead and cajole! At the very least, make sure to choose a successor with the self-confidence and good judgement to invite him back often.
Once again Christophers showed, through total commitment of probing mind and active, communicative body, a sui generis ability to make a period orchestra sing while demanding instrumental rigor from a chorus. He summoned and shaped long phrases while attending to the accurate subdivisions of bars. He demanded mastery of rhythmic complexity without impoverishing emotion. His ear for instrumental balance and his uncanny support for the artistry of singers rewarded us yet again. For the umpteenth time, he directed a well-told tale which lived in freshly glorious moments while he maintained a believing pilgrim’s progress towards the home port of Amen. And so say all of us.
The orchestra and chorus he has built (60% of the players are his hires), does justice to his artistic vision. Singing and almost lustrous strings never tired, nor did they commit any of those flippant mini-swell annoyances that can blemish other Messiah performances. Under the leadership of the essential Aisslinn Nosky (elevated upon her personal, two-inch high platform), they inflected and phrased with warm affection as well as accuracy and un-vibrating clarity. And it takes no little skill to make a straight-toned section meld this well.
Heather Miller Lardin, the single double bass player underpinned the proceedings convincingly due to the support of the resonant Symphony Hall. Oboists Debra Nagy and Priscilla Herreid, along with bassoonist Andrew Schwartz gave marvelously piquant and poignant accounts with Handelian verve. When emerging from a continuo role to a featured part a couple of times, Justin Blackwell’s licks on the the portative organ gave some sparkling delights. In two choruses, the brilliant harpsichordist Ian Watson moved over to a second organ, presumably to come closer to the composer’s ideal level of tone. Jonathan Hess’s malletwork on the Baroque cans always stirred the blood. The reliable baroque trumpet of Jessie Levine effectively raised the dead rather than dread, and his standmate Paul Perfetti added his own great tessitura.
Handel must be one of music history’s greatest tone painters. Think of his swarming insects in Egypt and in this oratorio, the many astonishing examples include text settings of: “exalted valley,” “crooked and straight,” “shame and spitting,” “shattering vessels,” and “since by man came ….death.” In every case soloists, players, and chorus, nailed the effects, but no Messiah can succeed without four fine soloists and a great chorus as disciples. The orchestra prepared the way for the singers to announce the Coming. And thus they did with conviction and chops. A professional chorus of 30 voices can make a very bold sound in the Hall, as this one did on many occasions, but their fleetness, their ability to turn on a dime, and their intense, almost hypersensitivity to Christophers’s eloquent gestures gave the assemblage the subtlety of four individual lieder singers.
Having been arrayed in sections rather than hashed, the chorus not only could respond to cues more easily, but they could also follow the longs arcs of Christopher’s slurs and emit wonderfully spacious quadriphony. We note that the chorus (and almost all of the players) went unmasked; this allowed for a brightness to the vocal tone and shining of countenances rarely to be experienced in this contagious era. The tenors gave out really attractive and at times heroic tones, whereas the boyish sopranos, having surrendered some of their womanly charms, could get hootey in ffs. The basses achieved focused brightness even in their lower ranges and seemed to have no wool accumulating on their chords. The charms of the alto section can best be exemplified by how Emily Marvosh stepped out from among them to join the solo quartet—apparently on three days’ notice. A chorus made up of 30 such who could also blend—what a gift to us.
The great singing actress Marvosh, looking like a Medea in her stunning black and white gown, is entering a stunningly golden vocal maturity. She never forced her instrument, and Christophers allowed her freedom of expression including delicious rubatos, indelible pianissimos, and some very original bluesy ornaments. In the aria text “Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee,” she certainly aroused this writer’s sensibilities.
Dulcet on top and baritonal in his lower regions, tenor soloist James Way, almost telepathically connected everyone in the house with the Word via Jennens. He somehow wove convincing speech patterns into his recitatives and arias through his gifted articulations. He kept us rapt, moved us with eloquent turns of phrase, and told a much-loved story with a disarming simplicity.
Roderick Williams, a baritone with an elegant stage presence and mellifluous colorations, brought us the British oratorio pronunciations and dignity so appropriate to this piece. And in the role of soprano soloist, Carolyn Sampson delivered perfectly supported and well-projected vocalisms over a wide dynamic range. angelic and consoling and prophetic by turns. She could have spit out more consonants, though.
In all, we thank H+H for another generous gift bestowed upon a receptive full house. Imbibing deeply from his seemingly inexhaustible source, Christophers demands and achieves rigor, vigor, exemplary articulation, and ever fresh and surprising details from players and singers—all in the service of his singular vision. Seemingly at the height of his game, he can still dance a jig if that’s what it takes to elicit what he wants to hear. What a legacy he leaves. And just why is he leaving?
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer
1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]
It was indeed a fine performance of Messiah on Sunday afternon. Ms. Marvosh’s replacement of the indisposed countertenor gave rise, upon reflection, to the question, “Why does H+H ever employ countertenors in “Messiah”? They proclaim their devotion to “historically informed performance,” and they make much of their use of “period instruments.” So why not always use period voices?
I have understood from all I’ve read that in performances under Handel’s aegis, the alto part was always sung by a woman. (Cf. the story of the audience member who, at the end of “He was despised,” was moved to call out, “Woman, for this are thy sins forgiven!” If my understanding is coreect, assigning those parts to a countertenor is not historically fully informed.
I know there were castrati performing in operas, and church choirs routinely employed boy trebles and altos, but that does not mean that countertenors are “period voices” specifically for “Messiah” or other oratorios in which women normally sang the alto solos. How about it H+H?
Second, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that Ms. Marvosh calls her voice “contralto.” For years, I’ve been wondering why there seem to be no more contraltos. For example, at the Met, the last time I looked there were no contraltos on the roster. Azucena, Erda, and all the other roles formerly sung by great contraltos are now consigned to mezzos. So on the one hand, it’s encouraging to see someone embrace the title, but on the other I still wonder why contraltos are so rare.
Comment by Joe Whipple — November 30, 2021 at 7:46 pm
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