IN: Reviews

H+H Bestows Blessings

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José Coca Loza ( Robert Torres photo)

Amazingly, this musician [moi] had lived in Boston for 48 years before hearing Handel’s Messiah live. The renowned Handel and Haydn Society’s enduringly popular annual transversal rewarded the wait. I can see why these legendary annual performances (since 1854) always fill the halls. It felt like a real Boston community event, light years away from the seven weeks my brain has been obsessed with a brutal war. Two and a half hours of beautifully performed beloved music helped boost thousands of other spirits whose attendance at this Messiah primed them for a peaceful, joyous Christmas season. The stage apron’s festooning with almost three dozen poinsettias plants announced the advent of Christmas. Whatever one’s beliefs about the coming of a messiah, Handel bestowed a universal blessing upon all of us.

Conductor Jonathan Cohen made a wonderful first impression for this listener. Full of grace and enthusiasm, he summoned spritely and enormously enjoyable tempi in the fast sections; this performance, his first as H+H Artistic Director, clocked in at almost a half hour shorter than Václav Luks’s take last year according to an overheard wag. 

Originally an Easter offering, Messiah first appeared at Musick Hall in Dublin in 1742. The audience swelled to a record 700, as ladies had heeded pleas by management to wear dresses “without Hoops” and men were advised to leave their swords at home, in order to make “room for more company,”. Handel’s superstar status was not the only draw; many also came to glimpse the contralto, Susannah Cibber, then in the midst of in a scandalous divorce. Mozart paid Handel the supreme compliment of reorchestrating Messiah in 1789. Even Mozart, however, confessed himself to be humble in the face of Handel’s genius. He insisted that any alterations to Handel’s score should not be interpreted as an effort to improve the music. “Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect,” Mozart said. “When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.” [Jordi Savall’s liner notes and Jonathan Kandell in Smithsonian Magazine.]

A staggeringly large 20 of the oratorio’s 52 numbers are choral. As for its most famous moment, the “Hallelujah” chorus, (“For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth”) the operative word repeats 70 times. In the 1750s, King George II is said to have risen to his feet, hearing this joyful, if sometimes boisterous number, beginning a tradition of standing in England and the U.S. Sunday, very few of us stayed seated. I doubt we’ll be instigating a new Boston tradition. 

Many singers I know and love from the prestigious vocal ensembles Lorelei, Blue Heron, and Skylark (sopranos Margot Rood and Sonja Du Toit Tengblad, alto Clare McNamara, tenor Jonas Budris, Stephan Reed, and bass David McFerrin and Dana Whiteside- all superb) showed up in the ranks of H + H’s outstanding chorus. Throughout Sunday’s performance, the 31-person chorus sounded just wonderful, managing the many tough licks with virtuoso finesse. The H + H chamber orchestra performed with their customary excellence. Baroque trumpet player Perry Sutton gave unto “The Trumpet Shall Sound” an extraordinary excitement; and oboist Debra Nagy, timpanist Jonathan Hess, and cellist Guy Fishman were their customary outstanding selves. 

The society fielded a rather uneven quartet of vocal soloists. Even from my ideal seat on floor in Row R, I had trouble hearing two singers at various times in their solos. British tenor Stuart Jackson, a great discovery, reminded me of the young baritone Bryn Terfel. Jackson is also a real stage beast, full of charm, charisma, and drama. He also had a gorgeous voice. I only wish Messiah gave him more work. His evident joy was a great harbinger of the holiday season ahead.

Stuart Jackson (Robert Torres photo)
John Holiday, Joelle Harvey, and Jonathan Cohen (Robert Torres photo)

I have known of soprano Joélle Harvey for years, but had never had the chance to hear her, which was one of reasons for coming to this concert. Resplendent in an off-the-shoulder red gown that matched the poinsettias in front of her, Harvey occupied a huge role, and throughout, sang with dulcet tones and expressivity. She tossed off her many melismas and top notes with panache. Her voice perfectly suits opera and oratorio, but her career has encompassed not only solo appearances with many orchestras, but also much work with prestigious chamber music groups.

Bolivian-born, Zurich-based bass-baritone José Coca Loza enjoys a good European-based career, yet on Sunday he had difficulties with articulation, and more often than not, was hard to hear. The audibility did, however, improve as the concert progressed. His higher notes began to project well, and he filled a huge role, as did countertenor John Holiday, who has to-die-for press quotes, plus a profile in The New Yorker, CNN’s “Great Big Story,” and the Los Angeles Times. There is nothing I like more than a great countertenor, but Holiday left me underwhelmed and unmoved.

Last thought: People have strange ways of enjoying a concert. A woman a few rows in front of me spent most of the concert knitting. This listener wishes audience members would leave their knitting needles and sewing kits at home; it’s as bad as cough-drop wrappers. Yes, the days are getting dark ridiculously early, but plenty of daylight remains for hobbies and other dalliances.  

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

21 Comments »

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

  1. It is hard to believe you have never heard the Messiah alive. Do you mean professional performances? Numerous church choirs sing portions of it annually. The Cong church I attended until 5 years ago when the building was sold handed out scores to the congregation and we also sang it. It was one of the highlights of the year. I do wonder why you are peering at attendees sitting rows away from you. LOL. The noise must be deafening. Merry Christmas!

    Comment by Rich Carle — November 27, 2023 at 3:24 pm

  2. Concur with ms. Miron, but she is too kind. This was an ill-assorted group of soloists for an excellent chorus and orchestra. The contrast between the impeccable English as well as dramatic and presence of the tenor and the sloppy enunciation of the bass-baritone was always in evidence.

    Comment by Helen Epstein — November 27, 2023 at 3:25 pm

  3. Dear Mr. Carle,
    I meant any live performance. When I make appearances in churches this time of year, it is generally as a harpist. My annoyance had nothing to do with noise. Happy holidays to you as well.

    Comment by Susan Miron — November 27, 2023 at 4:55 pm

  4. Yes, the timpanist was outstanding. Does anyone remember years ago the poor timpanist who was apparently playing a measure behind and he continued playing after the Hallelujah chorus ended. The audience broke out in laughter and he turned beat red. Poor man. I had great sympathy and empathy for him.

    Incidentally, you should cite the hoop skirt reference (Smithsonian). Don’t want plagiarism scrutiny.

    Comment by Chesley Basket — November 28, 2023 at 7:36 am

  5. Tsk. Tsk. It’s more than a phrase. Here’s a passage from Smithsonian:
    “George Frideric Handel’s Messiah was originally an Easter offering. It burst onto the stage of Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. The audience swelled to a record 700, as ladies had heeded pleas by management to wear dresses “without Hoops” in order to make “Room for more company.” Handel’s superstar status was not the only draw; many also came to glimpse the contralto, Susannah Cibber, then embroiled in a scandalous divorce.”

    Comment by Anthony — November 28, 2023 at 10:44 am

  6. Yes, Susan neglected to cite her source, but she took the quote(s) from Jordi Savall, not Smithsonian.
    https://www.alia-vox.com/en/catalogue/handel-messiah/

    Citation now included in the review text.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 28, 2023 at 10:51 am

  7. I’m afraid the problem is not the source of the quoted bits, just 2 words and 4 words.

    Two sequences are identical to the Smithsonian’s text: 17 and 26 words by my count.

    “The audience swelled to a record 700, as ladies had heeded pleas by management to wear dresses”

    “Handel’s superstar status was not the only draw; many also came to glimpse the contralto, Susannah Cibber, then in the midst of in a scandalous divorce.”

    Note as well that the idiosyncratic capitalization of Hoops and Room matches the Smithsonian not Savall.

    Here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-glorious-history-of-handels-messiah-148168540/

    Comment by Anthony — November 28, 2023 at 10:17 pm

  8. I’ve heard some of Luks’ work (though not Messiah) and would be surprised if Cohen’s Messiah were really a half hour shorter than last year’s H&H Messiah as the “wag” suggests. One wonders about cuts, of course. And Cohen took a single intermission (according to another reviewer), which might have prompted the wag’s remark.

    Comment by Will — November 28, 2023 at 10:34 pm

  9. Hmmm…seems like citations to both Smithsonian and Savall are in order. For instance, Smithsonian doesn’t mention swords while Savall does. And both are drawing from the same earlier/original sources, of course. Wikipedia writes similar phrases, but without UC’ing hoops.

    But Rob is right about the borrowing from Smithsonian.

    I’ll give no argument against proper attribution. Writers need to exercise care.

    The citation now reads [Jordi Savall’s liner notes and Jonathan Kandell in Smithsonian Magazine.]

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 28, 2023 at 11:36 pm

  10. For the record, I was first right about the Smithsonian, then Bob was right. But I enjoyed the concert and the review. Knitting was certainly odd but one couple walked out after the Hallelujah chorus. Perhaps the orchestra should warm up with that at the beginning to shake out the weak hands early. In another oddity, during the intro to “a trumpet shall sound” one slender 60 year old woman slithered, without touching the floor, from the last row in the second balcony, over the second row to the first row in order to get a better view, or perhaps it was part of a plan to save money. Fortunately, she was wearing pants.

    Comment by Chesley Basket — November 29, 2023 at 7:29 am

  11. Regarding the “wag’s” comment, I got this from H+H:

    “Last year Vaclav Luks did Messiah complete, with no cuts; it was 10-15 minutes longer than this year’s. Ira thinks the duration of Jonathan Cohen’s Messiah was very similar to Harry Christophers’.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 29, 2023 at 3:58 pm

  12. Strange that there is any fretting about source citation (or whatever it is), since it was the concert organizers who included in their event announcement the request: “the Favour of the Ladies not to come with Hoops this Day to the Musick-Hall in Fishamble Street: The Gentlemen are desired to come without their Swords” — a bit of color well-known long before Savall and Kandell. (Of course.)

    A 1990s book on ‘Messiah’ did go on to speculate that part of the reason for the work’s “peculiar” success was that “at Handel’s behest, the audience was compulsorily unsexed, involuntarily precipitated into the loose-gowned, swordless future ….”

    Comment by David Moran — November 29, 2023 at 5:18 pm

  13. A shorter performance doesn’t imply cuts, at least not on the part of the conductor, because Messiah exists in several performing versions, as well as the autograph. Handel moved things around, changed voices, made cuts and added new music. He did this partly because of second thoughts, but mostly to adapt to available resources. For the first performance in Dublin, he had smaller a different forces than he had originally envisioned, and he had Mrs. Cibber, celebrated as an actress but not so much as a singer, as his main attraction; for her he transposed two arias, including the beloved “He shall feed his flock”, from soprano to alto. When the show finally opened in London, he made more changes (including reversions to his original intent), and more for the various revivals. This history gives a modern conductor a lot of choices, and few stick precisely to the structure of one of Handel’s own various productions, unless that is the stated intent.

    Comment by SamW — November 30, 2023 at 5:42 pm

  14. Surprised that no one here seems to remember Christopher Hogwood’s annual renditions of Messiah with the Handel and Haydn Society.
    One year he began with the Dublin version and then proceeded with each surviving performing versions that Handel supervised in his lifetime, up to the final Foundling Hospital version.
    Sometimes there were 5 soloists, sometimes a countertenor, but always Messiah came shining through.
    I thought it was a brilliant means of keeping the tradition fresh, and showed a rare light on a composer’s practicality.

    Comment by Brian Bell — December 2, 2023 at 8:05 am

  15. And even further back, Tom Dunn also performed various versions during his years conducting H&H.

    Comment by perry41 — December 2, 2023 at 11:00 pm

  16. I’m glad that the review mentions the Hoops and Swords, as it should, but I missed the best story about the premiere; the anecdote, possibly apocryphal, that Mrs. Cibber’s interpretation of the aria “He was despised” was so moving that the irascible and worldly clergyman Patrick Delany, a friend of Jonathan Swift, jumped to his feet and cried out, “Woman, for this, be all thy sins forgiven!”

    Comment by SamW — December 3, 2023 at 12:42 pm

  17. What perry41 said.

    I was a HaHa governor for a few years back in the late 1970s, with the later-great Deborah Borda as manager, and while it was not easy (to put it politely) to get Thomas Dunn to think imaginatively in some respects, and while he was not always as lively a conductor as Hogwood et alia, he was decided about mixing it up year to year.

    It might be interesting to chronicle which ‘Messiah’ versions he chose over his 19 years.

    His Advent cassette recording from that time holds up fine, although it also shows how HIPper things have gotten since then (for the better imo).

    Comment by David Moran — December 4, 2023 at 7:08 pm

  18. Mozart version?? Ebeneezer Prout?? When can we hear the Beecham-Goosens adaptation? And HERE And HERE

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 4, 2023 at 7:11 pm

  19. Lee Eiseman: Yaaaaaaaasssss! Jon Vickers FTW.

    Comment by Mark Dirksen — December 9, 2023 at 1:57 pm

  20. https://www.paladinoeditions.com/sheet-music/pm-0038

    Comment by Mark Dirksen — December 9, 2023 at 2:05 pm

  21. Wow—parts and score for the Goosens version available for rent. Are you reading this Tony Fogg?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 10, 2023 at 11:22 am

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