If it’s December, it must be the Messiah. Whether crooned to perfection by concert-stage celebrities or tentatively stammered by local choristers and an out-of-tune piano, Handel’s two-and-a-half-hour masterpiece has earned its place as a “must see, must hear” event of the joyous season. The downside of obligatory performance, however, is trying to find something new and genuinely inspiring in a familiar text. Conductor Jane Glover and the Philadelphia Orchestra have done just that with their single offering of the choral classic this month.
The Baroque master lives
Composed by the great Baroque master George Frederick Handel (a German composer who became a British citizen), the work is eminently listenable to audience members from various musical backgrounds. Its richly diverse arias and choruses make up a kind of Top 30 hit parade list for England in 1742. As though the quality of the music were not impressive enough, Handel apparently composed the work in only 24 days. It opens with a nuanced overture that captures the feeling of the Judeo-Christian story of Jesus, from prophecy to birth, from passion to redemption. At this performance, an intermission neatly divided the work into two halves: the Christmas and the Easter/Resurrection sections.
A well-developed performance
Conducting without a baton (as is common for the choral repertoire, less so in front of instrumentalists), Glover drew a warm, inviting performance from the orchestra, which was scaled down to a medium-sized ensemble and joined by the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir under the direction of Joe Miller, well-known to Philadelphia audiences as the director of the Westminster Symphonic Choir.
Conductor of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque since 2002, Glover has helmed this work with the Philadelphia Orchestra before. It was clear that she was familiar with the ensemble’s modus operandi and unique sound. Glover held back the orchestral forces in the first half of the program, which to some may have seemed restrained and unremarkable, but upon listening to the entire work, it was clear that this moderation was deliberate and well thought out. Glover created a sharp contrast between the largely sweet story of prophecy and birth and the dramatic pitch of anguished passion and almost ecstatic vision of eternal life that characterize the second half of the program.
Joining the orchestra and chorus were four soloists: soprano Susanna Phillips, mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy, tenor Jonas Hacker, and bass-baritone Henry Waddington. Each soloist not only sang expressively, but also had a highly individual stage presence that contributed to the narrative. In terms of pure physical presence, Waddington, dressed in a gray suit, gave the impression of a powerful church elder or head of a serious-minded men’s club. To switch religious imagery, his “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” had the impact of a thunderbolt cast by Thor. Just as impressive was Phillips’s ability to smile convincingly while executing a 48-note melisma in the soprano aria “Rejoice greatly.”
Hacker, tenor soloist earlier this month in the orchestra’s performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass, provided a clear, shining tone and a lightness appropriate to the text, while Murrihy’s offering of the air “But who may abide” was stunning and lithe. Murrihy’s tone was brighter and less heavy than one commonly hears in alto or mezzo solos here, a quality that worked well with Glover’s overall conception and interpretation.
Outstanding solo performances in the orchestra came from Jeff Curnow on trumpet and concertmaster David Kim.
Whisper and shout amen
Sections of this performance that were perhaps less pleasing included the Pastoral Symphony, which falls right after “For unto us a Child is born.” This orchestral interlude is not particularly strong, though it does provide a bit of a respite from the intensity of Handel’s vocal writing. This performance lacked color and, despite its deliberately quiet nature, would have benefited from a little more zest and enthusiasm. Similarly, the choir, though accurate and really picking up speed and feeling in the second half of the program, seemed a little too low-key in the first section. All was forgiven, though, in the delightful encroachment of the final “Amen,” which rises from a breathy whisper to a shout of joy.
For many, the star of the show remains the Hallelujah Chorus. We’ll never know whether King George II really rose to his feet at the beginning of this stand-alone classic, but many people still do, and most did so in Verizon Hall on Sunday. This holiday warhorse feels climactic in its own right (a deceptive finale, like the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony), and standing for it creates a feeling at the end that pershaps we should all go home. But, of course, the work goes on, and in the opinion of many, just gets better as the real conclusion approaches.
It is this writer’s conviction that there should be as many types of performances of the Messiah as possible, that its freshness and relevance may advance and grow. This one was a worthy addition to the holiday music of 2019, and respectably continues a cultural tradition that likely will continue as long as there are listeners to feel and to hear.
Editor's note: a previous version of this article misidentified Paula Murrihy as Paula Murphy. We regret the error.
What, When, Where
Messiah. By George Frederick Handel. Conducted by Jane Glover. Susanna Phillips, soprano; Paula Murrihy, mezzo-soprano; Jonas Hacker, tenor; and Henry Waddington, bass-baritone. The Philadelphia Orchestra with the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir. December 22, 2019, at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or philorch.org.
The Kimmel Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999, or by emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, Patron Services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.