Symphony Hall basks in Christmas spirit with Handel’s Messiah

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On Sunday, Nov. 29, Boston’s Symphony Hall was filled with the resplendent sounds of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah oratorio. A confluence of superb conducting, splendid singing, and orchestral distinction made it the finest performance of the work in years.

Conductor Harry Christophers led the Handel & Haydn Society in its annual concert featuring Handel’s timeless piece. It is an epic tale that requires skill and imagination to produce. Without the benefit of visual effects, the conductor and singers face an arduous task of bringing the scenes alive to the audience. With their inspiring interpretation of the words and music, the performers on Sunday rose to the challenge with resounding success.

Departing from his practice of previous years, Christophers selected a female contralto instead of a male countertenor to sing the contralto role. Although the countertenor voice is a breathtaking gift in itself, the effect of having two men and two women as soloists for the Messiah gives more balance to the presentation. Handel himself selected women for the soprano and the contralto roles at both the Dublin and London premières in 1742 and 1743 respectively.

(Photo by Stu Rosner)

(Photo by Stu Rosner)

Christophers conducted the opening “Sinfony” with unhurried deliberation, revealing multiple layers of beauty in the exquisite introduction. As ever, his choral conducting was exceptionally skillful. The chorus’ combination of rich color and technical precision was particularly evident in “And He shall purify the sons of Levi.” Their fullest sound was achieved in “And with His stripes we are healed.” In the latter piece, the period instrument orchestra and the chorus coalesced impeccably well together. Each vocal section could be heard distinctly, and the textual interpretation was dramatic and effective.

In “Oh God that tellest good tidings to Zion,” contralto Emily Marvosh performed with poise and grace. Her judicious use of ornamentation on the words “Behold your God” was a beautiful enhancement to the music. Both Marvosh and soprano Sophie Bevan sang splendidly in “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd,” which is opened by the contralto and completed by the soprano. Bevan also gave a stirring performance in the aria “I know that my redeemer liveth.”

The chorus’ crisp enunciation and Christophers’ precise timing were noteworthy in “His yoke is easy.” His creative use of dynamics also highlighted the dazzling choral singing in “Lift up your heads, O ye gates.”

Baritone Christopher Purves gave an exemplary performance throughout the concert. In “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light,” his deep vocal resonance on the word “death” lent an ominous tone to the phrase.  Purves’ riveting performance in “The trumpet shall sound” also held the audience spellbound.

Tenor James Gilchrist sang with dynamic force in “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.” His vocal strength was enhanced by Christophers’ muscular conducting.

Christophers’ exceptional talent as a choral conductor was also evident in the chorus “Since by man came death.” The vocal and orchestral synchronization was flawless, and the clear delineation between the voice sections underscored the drama of the text.

In the magnificent “Amen” finale, Christophers’ interpretation alternated between tenderness and power, much like the story of the oratorio. Both the standing ovation and shouts from the audience were the loudest I’ve heard in many years of attending Handel & Haydn Society concerts. The lauds were richly deserved.

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected]


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