A great work such as Handel's "Messiah" -- especially if it has been around for nearly three centuries -- will inevitably be subject to different interpretations as it passes through musical styles and eras.
My second "Messiah" of this Christmas season looked back toward the baroque 18th century, while the first had more in common with the Romantic 19th. This time, the venue was St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Mamaroneck, N.Y., celebrating its bicentennial year.
Music Director Eric Milnes led a chamber orchestra of about 15 playing on period instruments, and a choir of about 25, compared to the 400 singers and 70 instrumentalists performing at Carnegie Hall last month in a concert produced by Distinguished Concerts International NY (DCINY).
As I wrote about "Messiah" I, making a Carnegie Hall debut in this work was a thrilling and very special experience.
"Messiah" II was astonishingly different.
At Carnegie, the DCINY chorus, consisting of more than a dozen choirs from around the world, produced a mighty and magnificent sound, aided by conductor Jonathan Griffith's inspired antiphonal placement of singers at the ends of the first balcony.
With just three rehearsals, it seemed to me that Griffith was, first of all, striving for clarity of expression as he melded the choirs. There were unique characteristics, such as his emphasis on taking silent breaths. Can you imagine 400 people all audibly taking a breath at the same time?
|"Messiah" at St. Thomas Church, Mamaroneck, N.Y.|
At St. Thomas, the church was full -- but this audience numbered about 220, compared to 2,800, an intimate living room compared to an awe-inspiring hall.
Milnes, a baroque specialist who has conducted "Messiah" many times, has put his individual mark on this work. He conducted from the harpsichord, whose gentle, ethereal sound complemented the warm sonic color of the baroque instruments.
With a much smaller group and more time for rehearsal, Milnes conducted a "Messiah" that was quite brisk. This "Messiah" danced, with rising and falling dynamics that shaped phrases like an urgent conversation. It was as if we were speaking one-on-one -- "Have you seen the glory of the Lord? Let me tell you about this. It's wonderful!"
He also varied the articulation. One example that resonates in my head was the phrase in the sublime chorus, "Worthy is the Lamb." The next few words are "that was slain." I've only ever heard the phrase sung legato, but Milnes had us detach the last three words - "Worthy is the Lamb. That. Was. Slain." Now there is a poignant contrast between the two phrases.
Here's Milnes conducting the Hallelujah Chorus in rehearsal at St. Thomas, with a tympani solo at the end that I've never heard before.
Milnes' collaboration with a stellar group of soloists and skilled instrumentalists produced a "Messiah" that received a tumultuous ovation at the end. However, this interpretation also touched people directly in the heart.
After the applause and bows, as musicians were packing up and audience members shrugging into their coats, a woman came backstage with tears in her eyes, just looking to find someone to whom she could say, "that was profoundly moving. I have never heard 'Messiah' like that."