Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Handel Week

Last weekend, I sang in the select chorus of 80 singers while the St. Louis Symphony performed Messiah under world-renowned Handel expert Nic McGegan. Employing a small orchestra of mostly strings, plus two oboes, bassoon, organ, harpsichord, and (in a few movements only) trumpets and timpani, Handel treated Charles Jennens' libretto - itself a selection of Old and New Testament passages indirectly narrating the story of Jesus' birth, death, resurrection, and return in glory after the present age of the church - with deliberate restraint, in terms of instrumental color. Unlike other Handel oratorios of its time, Messiah's arias are not embellished with solos by a variety of obbligato instruments. The text is the star, and as Nic and chorus director Amy Kaiser remarked in their prefatory discussion/lecture, it is a powerfully structured libretto, for vocal and dramatic purposes as well as for its Christian witness.

I am fairly sure that most anyone who participated in or heard our performances on December 11-13 would agree that these were the best performances of Messiah they had heard or taken part in. My boss and his wife heard the Sunday matinee and were emotionally, spiritually, musically blown away. He can't get over the way McGegan stamped his foot for emphasis on the last page of the Amen. She declared she was going to write to McGegan to congratulate him on his range of expression.

Some credit has to go to the soloists. Of instrumental soloists there were few. Big kudos go to SLSO principal trumpet Susan Slaughter, who contributed beautifully to the bass aria "The Trumpet Shall Sound" after a 30-year career as one of the country's first, and very few, female trumpet section chairs. It was also the first Messiah concertmaster David Halen had played with this orchestra. His leadership was invaluable. But I chiefly want to mention soprano Dominique Labelle, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass soloist Nathan Berg, who sang circles around whover our soloists were the last time we sang Messiah.

Labelle sang her three-and-a-half arias with exquisite tone and an astonishing mastery of coloratura detail. Her unbelievable agility was evident already in her first solo, "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion." But it was her expressiveness that sold her last one, "I know that my Redeemer liveth." I reckon there weren't many dry eyes in the audience by the end of that number. Mine weren't dry, anyway. I heard one Jewish lady in the audience remark: "She almost made a believer of me."

Taylor, who outside the concert hall sings in the baritone range, shouldn't have any trouble getting jobs in the specialized field of male alto repertoire. That's not just because there aren't many Handel operas in production at any given time. Taylor's countertenor voice is as beautiful as any I have ever heard, though perhaps less powerful than some. And though I was not seated in an ideal position to hear the details of his coloratura, he seemed to be quite firmly in control. When I think of the female alto in my last Messiah with the SLSO - a singer who persistently dragged behind the conductor and the orchestra - I can't help but feel privileged to have heard those numbers performed by a soloist and ensemble who really worked as a unit.

Gilchrist, a physician who gave up his medical practice to sing Handel, knocked his arias out of the park. Again, his mastery of the details was surgically precise; but it was his musicianship and expressiveness that really made the evening. His cadenza in "Every valley" painted an audible picture of the "rough places" that would be made plain. His recit "Thy rebuke has broken his heart" was heartbreaking. It was his voice that posed the structurally significant paradox that (first) "all they that see him laugh him to scorn" and (afterward) "the Lord will hold them in derision." And finally, it was his aria "Behold and see if there be any sorrow" that stuck in my head for days after the rest of this Messiah had become a warm memory.

Berg had a little trouble in his upper range - maybe he was under the weather? - but he also had a tremendous bass voice. The hall gave it back with interest to those of us sitting behind him on the stage. We couldn't see much of him except for a Cousin It-like curtain of hair that swayed as he navigated the tricky runs of sixteenths painting such text as "shake the earth" and "rage so furiously." But he, too, was a very sensitive singer. When "the people that in darkness walked have seen a great light," the tone-color of his voice painted both the darkness and the light. When "the Gentiles shall come to His light," I sensed compassion toward those poor benighted Gentiles.

Our Messiah was performed with significant cuts, particularly in Parts II and III. But it wasn't only because of them that each of our performances seemed to go by so quickly. It never seemed inordinately long. The pace of the piece was ideal, and with McGegan's preparation and leadership it was a joy to perform from one end to the other. "Let us break their bonds asunder" went from being (in my previous Messiah) the chorus that I dreaded for its vocal demands at such a late point in a hugely demanding work, to being my favorite one, skipping with joy and liberation. The Hallelujah was truly exciting. The Amen soared heavenward. And in many other choruses, scary runs of sixteenths came off beautifully, even at McGegan's brisk tempi.

It is because everything went so swimmingly that I must regret the one shadow that darkened our performance week. On the night of the last rehearsal, in front of an audience of some 800 donors, within the last 10 minutes of the chorus's 9 hours with the conductor over 3 successive nights - and very fruitful hours they were, full of warmth and cheer and musical progress - McGegan sent us off into Performanceland with a furious tirade that was as out of chracter as it was out of proportion. Many of us were still smarting from being pointed at, threatened, rebuked, and even called "stupid" in a loud voice, when McGegan ascended the podium on Friday night. If Messiah is chiefly a story of reconciliation, let's hope that the experience of mounting a beautiful performance of Messiah together will bring reconciliation to a long-standing, positive relationship that one moment of irrational anger may have broken.

IMAGES: Berg, Labelle, Gilchrist, Taylor.

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