Handel & Haydn's "Messiah": Amen to That

The Handel & Haydn Society's "Messiah"
(photo: Chris Lee)

In Symphony Hall, the trumpets shall sound. The Handel and Haydn Society has been performing Handel's 1741 oratorio, the Messiah, since 1818, so you'd be on fairly safe ground to expect that they'd have it all down by now, and indeed they do. Handel may have written his great work over a period of less than a month, and this group has been delivering the goods for the past two centuries, but it never grows old or tired, not when it's in these hands. For unto us a child is born is a message convincingly conveyed by the company's Artistic Director, Conductor Harry Christophers, brilliantly leading an orchestra of some twenty-eight pieces and a chorus of thirty. Add to this such sublime soloists as soprano Joelle Harvey, countertenor Robin Blaze (singing the parts usually assigned to a contralto, with some slight difficulty in the lowest register), tenor Colin Balzer, and baritone Sumner Thompson, and you have a performance to treasure. In a review published as far back as 1911, this company's rendition was even then regarded as a holiday institution, their first full performance having been in 1818, which was also its American premiere.

It has remained popular ever since, largely as a result of the sum of its parts, as Teresa Neff, a down-to-earth expert musicologist with the somewhat cumbersome title of the Christopher Hogwood Historically Informed Performance Fellow, notes in the program. Handel uses bold yet subtle text painting, creating an obvious relationship between words and music, both for soloists and chorus. The libretto by Charles Jennens (actually more of a compendium of biblical quotes from both the Old and New Testaments) would have been familiar to audiences at its inception, beginning with the prophecy and birth of Christ, then his death and resurrection, ending with redemption and the believer's response, as the crooked (are made) straight and the rough places plain. There are more than a few passages that are still applicable to our own era, such as All we like sheep have gone astray with its reflection on current political events.

Most folks are very familiar with the ubiquitous Hallelujah chorus, for which about half the audience stood, an established if outdated and meaningless custom. True music lovers of the piece most look forward to its Amen chorus, which is truly what it's all about. It's what sends one out into the cold of reality inspired by its warmth and excitement, and every valley shall be exalted. And what more could one ask in these otherwise troubling times? For, at least while listening to this work, His yoke is easy (ironically, anyone who has sung the piece will attest that this part is hardly easy). The Handel and Haydn Society's Orchestra and Chorus proved once again why theirs is the renowned Messiah in our area. Though there are more than a dozen other companies giving fine voice to this classic piece, for musical and philosophical re-energizing, get thee to Symphony Hall this weekend, where honor, glory and power be unto Him. The remaining Handel & Haydn Society concerts for the current season, in addition to the remaining Messiah performances on November 26 and 27, are as follows:
Bach Christmas
-Dec.15 & 18 at Jordan Hall

Mozart & Haydn
January 27 & 29 at Symphony Hall

Glories of the Italian Baroque
-February 10 & 12 at Jordan Hall

McGegan & Mozart
-March 3 & 5 at Symphony Hall

Monteverdi Vespers
-April 7 & 9 at Jordan Hall/Sanders Theatre

Handel's Semele
-May 5 & 7 at Symphony Hall

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