I regularly warn friends who have not experienced the Bach Collegium San Diego’s take on Handel’s Messiah that once they hear the Collegium perform the oratorio, they will be forever spoiled. Even other historically informed performances using period instruments do not come close to Ruben Valenzuela’s vibrant, emotionally searing revelations of a score that most music lovers think they already know.
Over the weekend, December 17-19, the Bach Collegium gave its Messiah in three San Diego County locations, and I was fortunate to hear the final presentation Monday (Dec. 19) at the First Presbyterian Church of San Diego. Although this spacious sanctuary was constructed over a century ago, the altar space or chancel is actually designed as a thrust stage set in the center of the building, providing an unusually live performing space that places the audience in desirable proximity to the performers. This architectural design is noteworthy because theater architects did not “discover” the concept of the thrust stage until decades after the Presbyterians built their otherwise rather traditional building.
This season’s Bach Collegium Messiah made the fourth time I have heard Artistic Director Valenzuela conduct this oratorio, yet I was amazed at how fresh and engaging every movement struck me. Some different vocal soloists, a new concertmaster, and a few new tempos for the choruses accounted for part of this effect, but I also believe the conductor continues to find new meaning and insights throughout Handel’s score that translates into the vitality and dramatic urgency of his overall interpretation.
Although choice of tempo—typically fast, and Valenzuela never drags the tempo—as well as precise articulation in the context of generally shorter musical phrases are significant elements that define Valenzuela’s approach, I believe his treatment of the text is paramount. Handel’s conversational English was said to have been less than elegant, but as his generation’s most successful opera composer, he knew how to give words a musical character that clearly divulged and expanded their meaning.
This is precisely where the performing traditions of our Victorian brethren led us astray, earnestly believing that since Handel was setting the words of Holy Scripture, their meaning was self-evident to believers and that these texts should be sung with the serene dignity of divine revelation, unfortunately robbing the text and music of the dramatic interpretation Handel invested in every phrase. So when, for example, the Bach Collegium tenor soloist Ross Hauck sang the unaccompanied phrase “Every valley,” the violins echoed him so precisely that I actually imagined him standing and singing at the edge of some deep cavern to listen for the echo of his voice. When he gently sang his melisma on the word “comfort,” he exuded balm and consolation.
When the countertenor Jay Carter repeated the section of his aria “For He is like a refiner’s fire,” he layered so much ornamentation on the text I expected combustion to break on out on stage at any moment. When the soprano Margot Rood opened her aria “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion,” her fleet roulades exploded with a holy ecstasy that would not be out of place in a Pentecostal service.
In the chorus that closes the oratorio’s first section, “His Yoke is easy and His burthen is light,” Handel sets the word “easy” to a long, busy, angular theme that is truly difficult to sing, which he then incessantly repeats. At the breakneck speed Valenzuela chose, only the most trained singers, such as those Bach Collegium hires, could carry out such a task, which the 17 Bach Collegium choristers did with amazing panache. For those listeners who care to think about such matters, that chorus is a complete sermon on the challenge of Christian discipleship. But not, of course, at the slack tempo most conductors settle for, especially when faced with a choir of 150 volunteer voices.
Among the winning instrumental details, allow me to mention the nasal, hurdy-gurdy timbre Valenzuela coaxed from his strings in the Pastoral Symphony, an appropriately rustic touch. Most conductors try to make the themes of this interlude as pretty as they can, but Valenzuela chose a timbre and phrasing appropriate to an actual peasant pastorale of Handel’s time. I enjoyed the clever placement of the two trumpets at the edge of a side balcony above the orchestra for the angelic chorus “Glory to God in the highest.” In that great fugal chorus “And by His stripes we are healed,” the Bach Collegium’s strings’ powerful, incisive short downward phrases easily conjured a flogging.
These myriad details—and I have listed only a few—made nearly every moment of this three-hour oratorio riveting. Valenzuela ceded all of the keyboard continuo functions to his Associate Music Director Michael Sponseller, who applied his customary skill and flair to the harpsichord and chamber organ at every turn. This allowed Valenzuela to focus exclusively on conducting, which tightened the pace and focused the oratorio beneficially.
The brilliance and immediacy of Margot Rood’s soprano as well as her glorious, supple melismas raised the temperature of the room every time she sang. She soloed in last season’s Bach Collegium Messiah and also appeared with the ensemble in the Bach concert earlier this fall. I was moved by the absolute confidence soprano Jennifer Paulino imbued her graceful aria “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” and her final cadenza at the close brought it home elegantly.
Countertenor Jay Carter’s clear, bell-like sonority and refined declamation served well throughout the oratorio, and his duet with tenor Ross Hauck in the duet “O death where is thy sting?” provided exhilarating drama even as the oratorio was settling into its final summation. Hauck’s bright, colorful tenor and his unfailingly exquisite dramatic text-painting proved welcome calling cards, while Paul Max Tipton’s wide range, persuasive declamation, and resonant bass enlivened the demanding arias and recitatives that Handel gave the bass soloist. Mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney’s more contained vocal technique lessened her dramatic contribution, although her articulate communication of the text was winning.
Following period practice, Valenzuela’s soloists sang with the chorus, which reflected and magnified their precise articulation and buoyant sonority with thrilling effect, especially in Handel’s numerous knotty contrapuntal forays. The composer’s “sheep” may have gone wildly astray, but the members of the Bach Collegium chorus stayed spot-on every time they sang. To cite a single example of their prowess: the chorus imbued the dangerously rapid fugue “He trusted in God” with a scornful edge that was truly frightening to behold. And yet with only 17 voices, they summoned amazing breadth for the broad choral tapestries of “Worthy is the Lamb” and the glorious final “Amen.”
Concertmaster Adam LaMotte led the strings with incisive, lyrical clarity—I hope Valenzuela will bring him back in this role with regularity. Kudos to principal trumpet Kathryn Adduci whose lyrical flights in the iconic “The trumpet shall sound” electrified the First Presbyterian audience. I have never heard any trumpet soloist—playing either some kind of modern valve trumpet or a natural trumpet such as she played—come close to her seamless perfection.
I am happy to go on record: in San Diego County, there only two satisfying options for experiencing Messiah. Attend one of the various sing-along performances and sing your heart out in every chorus. Or take in the Bach Collegium San Diego. It really comes down to that!