Since the subject of music has virtually disappeared from public school in recent decades, the average person’s musical knowledge tends to be sketchy at best. But if you mention Handel’s Messiah in conversation, most people know what you are talking about.
Unlike much classical music, Messiah was a popular work from day one (April 13, 1742, in Dublin, Ireland), and it has remained in performance ever since. But like women’s fashions, this oratorio has changed so much over the years, old George Frideric would be profoundly perplexed to encounter its typical contemporary American incarnation: a choir of 50 to 100 amateur voices accompanied by a symphony orchestra or pick-up orchestra of players using modern instruments. More than half of Handel’s inspired score is mindlessly omitted, and what remains is executed in a stuffy, devotional musical style that owes more to Edward Elgar that to early 18th-century music performance.
So you have probably experienced a Messiah, but you may not actually know Handel’s Messiah unless you have encountered a polished period performance (i.e., using period instruments and musicians trained in our best understanding of 18th-century performance practices) like Bach Collegium San Diego’s dazzling Messiah performances last weekend (December 5-7) in three different San Diego venues.
I was fortunate to attend Sunday’s account at First Presbyterian Church in downtown San Diego.
Bach Collegium Music Director Ruben Valenzuela has numerous period Messiah productions under his belt, and his vision of this oratorio gains depth and passion with each re-encounter. The addition of younger, accomplished vocal soloists with experience singing Baroque opera has been key to realizing this vision, because Handel’s musical style came to fruition over some 30 years of composing Italian operas. It was only when British taste tired of Italian opera that Handel was forced to invent his English-language oratorio, in truth an opera in concert augmented by choral insertions. Handel was one of the greatest entrepreneurial composers of western music!
From tenor Derek Chester’s vibrant opening recitative and exuberantly ornamented joyous aria “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted,” it was evident that this Bach Collegium Messiah would be marked by the expectation of dramatic propulsion and surprising elaborations. When Mischa Bouvier thundered Jehovah’s threat to “shake the heavens and the earth” with his opulent, virile baritone, I suspected even atheists in the audience began to worry. His ability to navigate Handel’s daunting passagework with uncanny precision while sustaining his massive sound might be one of the seven wonders of the modern opera world.
Soprano Margot Rood projected brightly the cascades of ornaments that adorn the aria “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” with a brilliant sheen to her voice that commanded attention, yet she crafted a winsome, shimmering legato in the aria’s slow middle section. Concertmaster Pierre Joubert added his shapely, warm obbligato that accompanies the soloist in that slow section.
Rood’s elegant final cadenza in “I know that my Redeemer liveth” sent chills up my spine. Yes, this is what Baroque oratorio is about, friends! For inventive ornamentation and suave phrasing, countertenor Reginald Mobley’s aria “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” stood out. Although I have always appreciated mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker’s polished legato line, when called upon for more assertive fioritura, such as the middle section of “Thou art gone up on high,” her timbre lacked the edge that makes such passages exciting.
All seven soloists sang in the Bach Collegium’s 17-voice chorus, which demonstrated at every turn how a smaller ensemble of brightly-hued professional voices can navigate Handel’s complex counterpoint more nimbly and persuasively than even large, well-trained community choruses can. This compact configuration also produces a more exciting timbre. Valenzuela took choruses such as “All we like sheep” and “Let us break their bonds” at breakneck speed—if you are driving a Ferrari, you want to press the pedal to the floor—without sacrificing either precision or clarity.
Under the tutelage of Joubert, the string ensemble (an even dozen to balance the number of choristers) played with unusual unanimity, using clean, short phrasing that allowed the music to breathe in ways that modern orchestral legato technique prevents. However, I did miss the presence of woodwinds, which, according to Shanon P. Zusman’s printed program notes about the 1754 Foundling Hospital version of the oratorio that Valenzuela was using, included bassoons and oboes. Natural trumpets and timpani added necessary color and punctuation in various movements towards the oratorio’s conclusion, although I found Principal trumpet Kris Kwapis’s crucial solo in “The trumpet shall sound” too meek and understated for Bouvier’s bold interpretation of the aria.
Associate Director Michael Sponseller provided immaculately charged musicianship from the keyboard (both chamber organ and harpsichord); the contributions of Sponseller and his compatriots in the continuo section drove the oratorio as much as the conductor’s steady hand.
This Messiah clocked in at precisely three hours, including a modest intermission. While the Bach Collegium has rightly restored this oratorio to its place as a secular “elegant entertainment,” to use the words of a Dublin critic who heard the first performance, and has expunged the stolid Victorian piety that still plagues conventional Messiah performance, I found this Messiah more profound and spiritually moving than any I have previously experienced.