I have only recently become fond of vocal music and, as a non-Christian, I have always avoided Christmas concerts, including performances of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Outside of the ubiquitous “Hallelujah Chorus,” I have somehow managed to avoid this warhorse altogether. As I have learned recently, this is much to my loss. This year Symphony Center brought in master baroque interpretor Nicholas McGegan to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus through a weekend of Messiah performances. Albeit perfunctory, Friday afternoon’s matinee was enjoyable.
Messiah itself is strange in lots of ways. Like other large choral works, it opens rather quietly. Unlike other works, it closes in a subdued way, and only revs up for the final Amen. There’s a nice balance of parts between the soloists and chorus, but the soloists only rarely sing with one another or with the chorus. This weekend’s performances omit some scenes in the second and third parts; a duet in Part 3 between the soprano and tenor is not being performed. Tonally, Messiah is all over the place with lots of aural color. It opens in a dark e-minor, but ends in a brilliant D-major after hitting several major and minor keys in between.
As is typical the vocalists were the highlight of Friday’s performance. Led by Duain Wolfe, the Chicago Symphony Chorus, all wearing face masks, displayed mastery of dynamics, phrasing, and ensemble singing. No one person or section stood out. In several choruses, such as “For unto us a child is born” and “He trusted in God,” counterpoint magic was evident, as was dynamic variation in “And he shall purify the sons of Levi” and “Since by man came death.” Generally, the orchestra and chorus blended well, as was especially evident in the three distinctive choruses near the start of part two.
The soloists were wonderful. Tenor Ben Bliss led things off with precise and clear singing in the Recitative and Air following the opening overture. and soprano Yulia Van Doren exhibited great dexterity in the Air “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion.” Bass baritone Dashon Burton was clear and articulate in the rapid-fire notes of “Why do nations so furiously rage together.” Countertenor Reginald Mobley offered a high point with a delightfully heartfelt rendition of the Air, “He was despised and rejected.”
Unfortunately, in Mobley’s earlier solos and in bits of Burton’s, the orchestra practically drowned them out, which contributed to an overall impression that the orchestra was the weak link in Friday’s performance. Except for occasional flourishes and ornamentations, Handel did not provide much fodder for fire; even the brief Pifa pastoral interlude is not very stimulating. The orchestra provided the minimum required with little pizzazz. In some places, such as the tenor Recitative at the beginning of Part 1 and the soprano Air in Part 3, intonation was a bit iffy.
That said, the orchestra’s melodic phrasing was really good, and the strings, oboes, trumpets, and everything else blazed in the “Glory to God in the highest,” “Hallelujah,” and the final choruses. The trumpets, which enter late in the work, blended well, as did the oboes and bassoon. I also appreciated the playing of modern instruments, as opposed to period instruments that has become popular. McGegan’s flowery conducting style, with arms swinging and body swaying, kept things visually interesting.
Of course, overhanging everything these days is the emerging Omicron variety of COVID-19. Proof of vaccination was required to enter Symphony Center. However, it was very refreshing that the by-now cliché celebratory statements comparing this year’s near normalcy to last year’s lockdown were not offered. Neither was there any religious fervor that make holiday concerts such a turnoff. On the whole, it was an enjoyable afternoon filled with lovely music and pleasurable performances.
This concert will be repeated at Symphony Center this evening, Saturday, December 18, at 8pm, and tomorrow afternoon at 3pm. The center is at 200 S. Michigan Ave. For more information and tickets, click here.