The Messiah at Verizon Hall by Curtis Rittenhouse

By on December 20, 2011

The Philadelphia Orchestra offered its annual performance of Handel’s Messiah at Verizon Hall Sunday night December 18. This has become something of a tradition for many orchestras at this time of year. Music Director Eugene Ormandy began the tradition in Philadelphia back in 1958 with Leontyne Price as soprano soloist. Often the task of leading this selection is given to assistant or guest conductors. The orchestra has imported a number of Brits for the task in recent years.

The Hall was filled for this year’s performance, which says something about this piece’s staying power. The yuletide season is about family and tradition and this burst of inspiration from England’s greatest import-composer goes down like egg nog. Handel had composed many operas and oratorios by the time he wrote Messiah, but it has always stood out from the rest.

There is no standard version of Messiah. The text is constant unless cut. Handel adapted individual segments for whatever performers were available. I have seen it with counter-tenors and period instruments and with large choral ensembles and full orchestras. One hundred years ago, audiences like it big and bloated and reverential. The early music revival has ushered in tastes for more sprightly tempos, ornamented lines and smaller groups of period instruments. It has been recorded over three dozen times. It is almost foolproof, but great interpretation makes a huge difference.

Glover, the director of opera at the Royal Academy of Music in London, has described herself as “an 18th century girl” and it shows. She has conducted Messiah throughout her career starting thirty years ago . Sunday night she knew exactly what she wanted. The orchestra sections were smallish; the chorus not overwhelming. She worked without a score and without a baton. Tempos were lively.  Gestures were economical, paying much attention to balance.  Singers and orchestral soloists were encouraged to decorate the melodic line tastefully. And the forces on stage seemed to give her what she wanted.

The soloists, Susanna Phillips, Phyllis Pancella. John McVeigh and Stephen Powell were all first class, ornamenting their solos in keeping with the period. McVeigh in particular made his declamations dramatic. The orchestra was very scrupulous about their trills and turns. Jeffrey Curnow’s trumpet solos were spot on and the organ, harpsichord and stringed support was just right.

The audience, in keeping with tradition, stood during the Hallelujah chorus. I always feel slightly self-conscious joining in as I am contributing nothing myself. Messiah may be the only classical music composition with a seventh-inning stretch. The final Amen was imaginatively done with solo contributions from the two violin sections and brought the oratorio to a satisfying close.

This was a holiday classic being performed about as well as I can imagine it being done — I do miss the countertenor’s voice having heard it in concert in this piece— but this was a great performance under a great interpreter. I hope she gets invited back.

Curtis Rittenhouse

About Tom Godfrey

8 comments on “The Messiah at Verizon Hall by Curtis Rittenhouse

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    • TGodfrey on said:

      Thank you very much. I like your quote, though I am not familiar your source. Certainly The Messiah is both a message of a man’s greatness and the quality of his dreams. Curtis

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      Thank you for your pat on the back. Please let me know if there are topics you would like to see explored. I have put up several new posts in the past few days and will add more in the days ahead. Tom

  4. Dorine Utzig on said:

    Sounds like a great performance.

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