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New York Philharmonic

The Riverside Church
490 Riverside Drive, New York City

Saturday, December 17, 2005, 8:00 p.m.

Richard Hickox, Conductor (New York Philharmonic debut)
Christine Brandes, Soprano (New York Philharmonic debut)
Sara Mingardo, Contralto (New York Philharmonic debut)
Mark Tucker. Tenor (New York Philharmonic debut)
John Relyea, Bass-baritone
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Timothy Brown, Interim Director


HANDEL:  Messiah (1741)

Hai-Ye Ni, Cello; Jon Deak, Bass
Kim Laskowski, Bassoon; Philip Smith, Trumpet
Paolo Bordignon, Harpsichord; Kent Tritle, Organ


By Robert D. Ekselman

Three weeks is all the time that was taken by a worn out, older man who had suffered a stroke and partial paralysis to compose one of history’s most enduring masterpieces, Messiah. This monument, an oratorio written originally to inspire religious sentiment - has provided spiritual food for every generation since, and right up to the present day. George Frideric Handel’s massive work for choir, solo voices and orchestra is divided into three sections spanning Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. Each of these three parts is further broken down into arias, recitatives or full chorus segments of varying length based on passages from the Bible’s text and presented as narrative.

The story of Messiah’s own travails makes for fascinating reading; at the time of composition in 1741 it was only performed at Easter. It was not until 1750 that London audiences gave their stamp of approval after Handel had given two performances for the Foundling Hospital, a charity for orphaned children. In 1788 Mozart added his genius to the manuscript in order to modernize phrase lengths and revise the wind parts to compensate for the unavailability of an organ at some of his performances. Although the work never fell into obscurity, it was not until the1820’s that the work was ‘rediscovered’.

Mozart’s alterations were by then almost universally adopted, along with an ever-expanding choir size. Victorian England incorporated the masterpiece as a vehicle to instill morality into the masses, and in particular the lower class. In the late 19th century Sir George Grove spearheaded a move to authenticity, which continues to this day - and encouraged a return to Handel’s original markings.

The incentive behind the writing of Messiah came from Handel’s friend Charles Jennens who had compiled texts from Scripture passages. Jennens had been disturbed by the growing religious freedoms of his era and felt that his text for Messiah, showing Old Testament prophesy, and New Testament fulfillment, was his best defense of fundamentalism and Christian revelation. As such Jennens’ religious allusions would have been immediately appreciated by the audience of Handel’s day.

The challenge in writing an oratorio is to create drama through the contrast of styles between the short arias and recitatives, and the interplay between orchestra and choir and soloists. Lacking either in costume, sets or scenery granted to any opera production - the imagery should be potent enough to engage the audience. Handel had much experience through his writing of Italian style of Opera prior to Messiah, and he brought all of these skills to bear on his new composition. The compositional style is Italianate. He makes use of the choir in a four-part setting as his main expressive medium, with the four soloists often given virtuoso lines, and striking a remarkable balance between baroque gracefulness, and the grand ceremonial style that has become such a hallmark of Handel’s religious compositions.

Handel’s ability to capture mood, and in effect to paint vivid imagery through the employment of orchestral timbre could not be more strikingly illustrated than in the contrast between the palpable joy of baby Jesus’ birth in the soprano aria ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion’, and the bass-baritone aria ‘For behold, darkness shall cover the earth’ - both from Part I. The good tidings are propelled by the playful exchange between the violins and soprano. There is a wide melodic range in the strings  - alternately low and then much higher, and trills - representing delight at the Lord’s birth.
The darkness of the other, illustrated by the deep solo bass register seems to leave the listener suspended in time and place, and has a limited melodic range as though there were insufficient light to permit moving beyond a small span of notes. Out of this atmospheric gloom you feel a gradual transformation, a growing sense of strength, and a pulse of hope. The final cadence in the major occurs on the word ‘rising’ and is like a beacon of light shining through the minor key.

The performance on Saturday night at the magnificent Riverside Church featured members of the New York Philharmonic (strings, trumpet, harpsichord, organ and bassoon). This was a reduced orchestra consisting of mostly strings accompanied by the Westminster Symphonic Choir. The four soloists were: Christine Brandes, soprano, Sara Mingardo, contralto, Mark Tucker, tenor, and John Relyea, bass-baritone. This was the New York Philharmonic debut performance for three of the soloists, the bass-baritone having performed previously with the Philharmonic. The grandeur of the music seemed to be underscored by the high vaulted ceiling and the spaciousness of the venue. From the stately opening measures the orchestra set the reverent tone for the evening, under the able directorship of Richard Hickox, in his debut performance with the New York Philharmonic.

The choice of tempi was sensitive to bringing out the dramatic elements within the text, and also flexible enough to allow the music to have the maximum impact. It sounded energized without ever being rushed. He is not only an experienced operatic conductor, but equally at home with the symphonic repertoire. His unassuming manner on stage was quietly authoritative and obviously inspired the musicians. The strings took on the role of accompanist for the soloists, providing tenor, Mark Tucker just enough support while letting his refined voice, with its fluid virtuosity - be heard. The orchestra’s playing was understated when solos called for it, and the expressive use of vibrato was limited mostly to the interludes without voice. Soprano Christine Brandes has an impressive technical command, and has already appeared with many of the world’s finest ensembles. The bass-baritone made his first appearance in the difficult and dramatic recitative, ‘Thus saith the Lord of Hosts’. John Relyea’s powerhouse voice impressed with his ability to cut through the orchestra and choir. He will be appearing this season at the Metropolitan Opera.

Italian trained and born contralto Sara Mingardo has a refined and seemingly effortless vocal production, in addition to the gift of being able to sustain dramatic tension through the long phrases. Her tempo in the Part II Air ‘He was despised’ was on the slower side – appropriate to its context - but the interpretation was so well paced that the music never for a moment lost its thread, and captured the sense of Christ’s aloneness and rejection. I found her portrayal to be sincerely moving. The chorus ‘Surely He hath borne our griefs’ featured a very rousing choir, with its expressive and finely graded dynamic swells, and crisp dotted rhythms in the strings. The vigorous and solid support by the double basses must have been well appreciated by the orchestra, with solo trumpet Philip Smith adding sparkle to the joyous celebratory spirit with his brilliance and bell–like clarity. The choir sang throughout the evening with youthful energy and spontaneity. This was an exciting and uplifting performance by choir, orchestra and soloists - and it was a pleasure to hear it in such an ideal setting presented by such gifted and seasoned musicians as the New York Philharmonic.