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"Messiah" in Winter: A First for the Cincinnati Symphony

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Dec 21, 2009 - 10:24:14 PM in reviews_2009

Nicholas McGegan
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has performed Handel's "Messiah" many times, but never on its own season.  The May Festival, for which the CSO is the official orchestra, has first call on the choral orchestral repertoire in Cincinnati, and that has always included "Messiah." 
   Until now.
   "Messiah" made its CSO subscription concert debut December 17, 19 and 20 at Music Hall with the May Festival Chorus.  On the podium was British conductor and baroque performance expert Nicholas McGegan.  (This listener heard the final performance on Sunday, December 20.)
   Early music, loosely defined as up to about 1750 ("Messiah" dates from 1741), is not the province of the CSO either, so it was doubly rewarding to have McGegan on the podium.  The CSO was in good hands literally, as McGegan conducts without a baton.
   From its modest beginnings in Dublin, where it was premiered in 1742 in a hall holding perhaps 700 people, "Messiah" grew to imperial proportions in succeeding years.  A performance in London's Crystal Palace in 1859 (on the centennial of Handel’s death) employed a chorus of over 2,500 and an orchestra of nearly 500.  This tendency persisted until fairly recent times.  Beginning in the 1950s, the "historically informed" performance movement has corrected such excesses, however, and today “Messiah” can be heard as it was in Handel's time, with modest forces and brisk, clean articulation.
   The CSO utilized Handel's scoring, with 30 strings, two oboes, bassoon, two trumpets and timpani, plus harpsichord and organ.  It was a crisp, bright sound, fully responsive to McGegan's energetic and often colorful conducting.
   Soloists were soprano Dominique Labelle, alto Marietta Simpson, tenor Norman Shankle and baritone Christopheren Nomura.  The May Festival Chorus numbered about 75.
   The villain entered the piece with Music Hall itself.  Though gorgeous, stately and grand, the hall's sheer sizes induces complacency in the Cincinnati audience (not to mention lack of intimacy between listeners and performers and being out of proportion to much of the symphonic literature).
   The concert was delayed by 15 minutes to help accommodate the large number of ticket buyers and will-call patrons waiting to get in.  The will-call line was still snaked twice around the Music Hall foyer as the chimes rang signaling people to take their seats.  There was not enough staff to serve them or an exigency plan to deal with the situation.
   Such occurrences are inevitable because people take their time buying tickets to Music Hall events.  They know that seats will always be available and can be bought at the door or picked up at will-call after a last-minute phone call.  As it was, the hall was perhaps half full -- not a bad turnout for the vast majority of concert halls -- though it was made to look fuller by closing off the gallery.
   When the concert finally began, the brisk Overture gave notice that this would be a “Messiah” relieved of the weight it has taken on during the last three centuries.  It was brisk, yet warm, and invited the listener in without undue gravity.
   Tenor Norman Shankle engaged the audience at once in “Comfort Ye” with his pewter tone and faultless coloratura (this listener was reminded of John Aler in his prime).
   Baritone Nomura (“Thus spake the Lord”) displayed a warm, distinctive voice and secure technique, though how far it carried in Music Hall was another question.  Alto Simpson (“Behold, a virgin shall conceive”), a singer of great sensitivity and expression, probably did not carry very far at all, and her voice was often obscured by the CSO, even in the gallery, where I sat during the second half to test the sound from the hall’s most reverberant spot.
   Soprano Labelle was perfectly matched to her task.  Expressively, she worked hand in glove with McGegan.  There was a flutter of excitement on “and suddenly, there was with the angel,” which he took at a quite a clip.  And her “I know that my redeemer liveth” was the single most moving number during the entire, two-and-a-half-hour oratorio.  She deployed her voice in a deeply affective manner, sometimes withholding or shading her vibrato and ornamenting her lines with exquisite taste and beauty.
   Prepared by May Festival Chorus director Robert Porco, the choristers acquitted themselves well, though there were differences in the strength of the sections.  The basses were weakest in coloratura and projection (“And he shall purify”), and at times, the women’s voices sounded less than secure with McGegan’s rapid tempos.  The tenors displayed much more flexibility and presence throughout.
   McGegan’s handling of the orchestra and chorus was true to the text and Handel’s vivid tone painting thropughout.  It was fun to watch him toss “Rejoice” from Labelle to the CSO and back (“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion”).  He drew out the pointed, biting rhythms of “Surely he hath borne our griefs” at a rapid, almost indignant pace, then contrasted it suddenly with a soft, slow "And the Lord hath laid on him," tinged with deep sorrow.
   CSO trumpeters Robert Sullivan and Steven Pride shone brightly in “Hallelujah,” “where the audience stood as is the custom.  McGegan ended it with a brisk, affirmative cutoff rather than draw out the final syllable as is usually heard in stand-alone performances.
   Part III, which was cut by four numbers (part II was cut by about the same amount), proceeded with unbroken momentum, from the softly whispered “Since by man came death” to the final, great consummation.  Principal trumpeter Sullivan stood for “The Trumpet shall sound,” which he sent out into the hall nimbly and gloriously with Nomura.
   The concluding choruses, “Worthy is the Lamb” and “Amen” were the finest of the evening.  The basses led off “Blessing and honor” with great dignity and strength, joined by the full chorus with the trumpets soaring on top.
   McGegan began “Amen” slowly and deliberately, funneling the currents of the music into the great suspended chord where everyone takes a big breath before the heaven-storming conclusion.
   Listeners were on their feet again in a spontaneous, heartfelt ovation.  The CSO’s success with “Messiah” (the concerts on Thursday and Saturday drew large crowds) bodes well for Handel’s well loved masterpiece to return to Music Hall in December.