Sunday, December 22, 2013

My 'Messiah' problem — and ours: Reflections on the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra/Indianapolis Symphonic Choir's Dec. 21 performance

The association of Handel's "Messiah" with the Christmas season has more disadvantages than just historical inaccuracy.  It also encourages cuts like those made by guest conductor James Feddeck in the concert presented Dec. 21 at Clowes Hall, with a large chorus (the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir) and a commensurate accompanying ensemble (the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra).

 James Feddeck, 'Messiah' guest conductor
Trimming the 1742 Lenten oratorio so that a presentation's overall length doesn't approach three hours is obviously tempting today, particularly if a laudable goal is acquainting new audiences with the work and keeping them interested. Only a snob would deplore substantial numbers of first-timers in a "Messiah" audience. For example, an elderly woman seated near me wondered aloud at intermission if the Hallelujah Chorus was coming up in the second half; if not, she was prepared to demand her money back. "That's what this is famous for," she correctly remarked to her companion.

Americans' preference for attending "Messiah" at this time of year leads to some misrepresentation of the work. Where those perhaps advisable cuts are made is a matter of targeting the second and third parts of "Messiah," which seasonally don't fit Advent. Doing so throws the spotlight a little more firmly on the foretelling of Christ's birth and the Nativity narrative.

What gets short-changed is the vivid sketching of Jesus' struggle against persecution, set in high relief against the promulgation of his message to the world. The eventual triumph over adversity, seen under the aspect of eternity (the text is from that eternity-daft book, Revelation), is "Hallelujah!" That leaves the third part, less heavily trimmed by Feddeck, to sum up the promise and value of Jesus' messiahship, ending with the assertion of "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain" and sealed with the magnificent, fugal "Amen."

Here's why the effect of such cuts should be of interest to anyone not made restless by sitting through three hours of 18th-century oratorio. Musically, it's a shame the alto solo "He was despised,"" the soprano solo "How beautiful are the feet" and such miniatures as the tenor arioso "Behold and see" are missing. Gone, too, are such effective choruses as "Behold, the Lamb of God," the angry "He trusted in God" (reminiscent of some of the people's choruses in the Bach Passions) and the joyous proclamation of "The Lord gave the word."

But there are also musico-dramatic reasons to regret substantial trims in Parts II and III. "Messiah" is famously an exception among Handel's oratorios in not having a thoroughgoing narrative, but  there's a narrative core behind the progression of texts that Charles Jennens provided the composer. Handel was a man of the theater. Squeamishness about the staging of sacred texts and stories in his time birthed the oratorio as a genre that Handel successfully developed — stories of sacred import told in a concert setting. Even without named characters singing, "Messiah" is dramatically interesting to believer and unbeliever alike. There are serious doubts today about the validity of typology, but the choice of sacred texts set to so much persuasive music makes a strong case that the Old Testament frequently foreshadows the New, symbolically and prophetically. That's what "Messiah" is about, like it or not.

If this is lost in a "Messiah" performance, much of the work's meaning goes away with it. And the "Hallelujah" Chorus undergoes a strange hypertrophy, sounding a note of supreme triumph without much foregrounding when Part II is heavily cut. One doesn't have to go to the extent of accepting Professor Michael Marissen's interpretation of "Hallelujah!" as the capstone of a work deploring Jewish resistance to Christian revelation in order to find the famous chorus too dominant in how listeners receive "Messiah" today. When combined with the regrettable convention of audiences standing for "Hallelujah!," something uncomfortably close to idolatry is the result, even though the pious probably think they are proclaiming their devotion to the oratorio's subject rather than to a particular piece of music. I think they are mistaken.

As for Saturday's performance, it was musically polished and acutely shaped. Apart from a weak alto entrance in the choir's first chorus, "And the glory of the Lord," and some flatting by the tenors here and there, the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir sounded great.  The choir's diction (all the letters of "hosts" were distinctly pronounced, for example) and coordinated phrasing were first-rate. Every contrapuntal line in those choruses rife with counterpoint was clearly projected.

 The orchestra was invariably supple and lively, and rhythmically the performance was crisp and animated. There was a lilt to its accompaniments that kept too much solemnity from overtaking the music, as in the alto solo "But who may abide," Amanda Russo's impressive initial appearance. (She was the most severely deprived of the four soloists by all the cuts, as she had nothing to do after intermission but stand up with all the other singers for "Hallelujah!"). Feddeck had the orchestra impart buoyancy to "I know that my Redeemer liveth,"  which aided soprano Jessica Beebe's expressive singing. Choir and orchestra alike eased up as "His yoke is easy" chugged toward its final measures, with a lovingly shaped diminuendo.

As for the male soloists, Benjamin Werley gave operatic heft to his appearances and ornamented tastefully.  Of the four, baritone Zachary Coates was the least prone to ornament his solos, electing to give them straightforward declamatory expression. Crowning his showcase airs was the exciting but theologically knotty "The trumpet shall sound," with a Judgment Day cast given to the solo obbligato by ISO principal trumpet Ryan Beach.

Despite Feddeck's sensitive interpretation, however, there was something  missing in this performance that only a similarly expert rendition of the full score could have provided. Its absence in the interests of brevity and seasonal suitability is part of my "Messiah" problem — and ours.