New Jersey Symphony continued, this month, its holiday concert tradition of Handel’s “Messiah,” the Baroque choral masterwork famous for its riveting Christmas narrative and majestic “Hallelujah” chorus. Concerts were held Dec. 15 at the Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University and Dec. 17 at Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark.
The oratorio was first performed by the symphony in the 1976-77 season and has turned into an annual offering in recent years, to celebrate seasonal motifs of comfort and joy.
The orchestra brought in early music specialist and conductor Nicholas McGegan to lead the musicians, the Montclair State University Singers choir and vocal soloists in a balanced, nuanced interpretation that kept an ear towards Baroque articulations. At the sold-out Newark performance I attended, the polished church acoustics added a sense of immediacy and effervescence to the refined, elegant orchestral textures.
McGegan is an advocate of historically informed performances, which presents music as it was played in its time, using authentic tempos, ornamentations and period instruments. However, a definitive, correct “Messiah” is difficult to pin down because Handel and his librettist Charles Jennens modified the casts and sketched musical revisions for every revival, often making cuts within movements or transposing them to new keys to suit singers of different vocal ranges.
After Handel’s death in 1759, “Messiah” took on diverse performance practices, from small intimate sections for liturgical use in churches to sprawling festivals in concert halls. In the second half of the 20th century, choirs began offering sing-along performances that still endure.
There was little doubt that McGegan’s Baroque appetite would influence his interpretation, using a pared down, chamberlike orchestral setting and clean, clear harmonic language. He remained faithful to Handel’s intentions with Baroque articulations throughout, and kept Handelian excesses of over-ornamentation and campiness at bay.
Light, airy strings made charming countermelodies in the tutti movements and the “Pifa” pastoral. Timpani, harpsichord and organ continuo added profundity to the well-tempered bass line. Two trumpet soloists played from a side sanctuary box with refined delicacy in the closing choruses of Part II and III. A handful of oboes and bassoons outnumbered brass, which amplified melodic color.
Born in Germany in 1685, Handel spent most of his career in London and was so revered by the English that he was buried in Westminster Abbey. His “Messiah,” composed over three weeks in 1741, marked a turning point in his prolific London career that pivoted from Italian opera to English works, and the enthusiastic reception to the three-part oratorio shaped musical tastes and traditions for centuries to come.
Jennens’ libretto tells the story of the miraculous birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, adapted from Scripture using Old and New Testament texts. Themes ponder the mystery and wonder of God, and God’s redemption of man through the Messiah.
Despite the religious presentation of the story, McGegan focused on the human drama and depth over the ecclesiastical dogma, which made for a relatable and accessible experience. The effect was comforting and affirming.
The Montclair State University Singers — who have participated in the symphony’s annual “Messiah” since 2014 — took a leading role in the work’s most profound and lyrical moments. The mixed choir has been under the direction of Heather J. Buchanan since 2003.
They expressed genuine character development and evolved over the course of the work, building in intensity, urgency and joyfulness till the jubilant “Hallelujah” chorus. The Newark audience pulled to their feet for the compelling anthem. Some sang along.
“Messiah” performances in Handel’s lifetime often featured a broad spectrum of up to eight soloists with roles split between various singers of upper and lower voices. Modern performance practices routinely feature four soloists, which is what was used here. They adhered to early music vocal techniques and intonations. Notably, tenor Thomas Cooley’s creamy lyricism and eager sensitivity was well suited to early music ornamentation in “Comfort ye,” while “He that dwelleth” was sung with dramatic passion.
Countertenor Key’mon W. Murrah sang with a velvety texture and nice flexibility. His “But who may abide” was suffused with meaningful accents, and his Part II da capo aria “He was despised” was more lyrical than profound. His bordeaux timbre countered beautifully against the brighter, tangier tones of soprano Sherezade Panthaki during their “He shall feed His flock” duet. Panthaki sang with a perfectly poised mix of joy and urgency, and used effortless flexibility in her ornamentation.
Baritone Tyler Duncan sang the delightful “The trumpet shall sound” air in thrilling interplay with the principal trumpet that balanced dazzling textures with tonal contrasts. Together they ushered in the final, triumphant “Amen” chorus, a masterpiece of Handel’s contrapuntal skills and a glorious tribute to the holiday spirit.
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