Deck the Halls with Boughs of Handel: A Review of the New York Philharmonic’s “Messiah”

New York City is brimming with “Messiah”s this December. Whether one wishes to attend one with period instruments, a full-on orchestra, or something in between, the New York Baroque scene awaits. I chose to attend the New York Philharmonic’s “Messiah” on Saturday night. With a more petite version of the ensemble, including only three stands of first violins for example, a more chamber-esque sound was created on a smaller-scale. Unlike the cherished Sir Thomas Beecham recording, trombones, tuba, triangle, and cymbals could not be found on the stage of David Geffen Hall.

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Jane Glover conducting the “Messiah”; Credits: Robert Altman of the New York Times

Jane Glover, making her debut with the New York Philharmonic, conducted a very loving performance. Without a baton or a score, she genuinely connected with the soloists, orchestra, and chorus to make the whole experience very warm and inviting. I particularly liked her own clever articulation of “All we like sheep have gone astray”, as she placed a pause or lift between “we” and “like”, in order to clarify the meaning of the sentence. Often people take it to mean that the chorus really, strangely, respects sheep, whereas it should be taken to mean that the people are wandering in the manner of sheep.

Heidi Stober demonstrated her versatility through the contrast of her fast gait in “Rejoice  greatly” and her beautiful legato in “I know that my redeemer liveth”. Tim Mead exemplified the fluidity in his voice, never spending too much time singing in straight-tone and making sure to incorporate full vibrato. As his part is commonly sung by a mezzo, he managed to maintain the appropriate timbre for Handel’s requirements. Paul Appleby’s voice has grown since the last time I heard him as David in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Met last season. He gave great emphasis for clarity and diction on “Thou shalt break them”. Roderick Williams was difficult to hear at times, especially in “The Trumpet Shall Sound”, but who could blame him for being covered in that aria? The piccolo trumpet itself was played very clearly and bravely forte.

The Westminster Symphonic Choir sounds professional in everything they do. Sir Simon Rattle just recently led them triumphantly in Beethoven’s Ninth at Carnegie Hall with the Berlin Philharmonic and they are soon preparing to sing under Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the Philadelphia Orchestra for Mahler: Symphony No. 8 in March. Their blend deserves great admiration considering how young the average age is of each member of the ensemble. They sang freely, kept their faces out of the music, and even moved together in a joyful fashion.

As my first time ever attending a live performance of the “Messiah”, I was very impressed with how uniquely and specifically it was interpreted. The two and a half hours flew by for me. I look forward hopefully to more appearances by Jane Glover both at the New York Philharmonic and the Met.

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