Monday, December 12, 2016

"Strong in new Arms, lo! Great Handel stands": Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra presents 'Messiah' under new maestro

Alexander Pope's praise of Handel, quoted in the above headline, refers to the composer's shift from opera to oratorio. The
Matthew Kraemer led a forthright peformance of Handel's "Messiah."
Italian opera in which Handel made his reputation in London was derided as an unintelligible exoticism, and its vogue soon declined. Turning to oratorios — narrative-based but unstaged and using English texts and more choral singing — was a shrewd career decision for Handel, an antidote to the "dullness" Pope saw taking over England.

Down to the present day, that move has ensured the German-born composer's immortality with English-speaking audiences, though it's become focused on just one of the oratorios: "Messiah."

In recent decades, Handel's Italian operas have been successfully revived here and there. But they are unlikely ever to challenge the pre-eminence of "Messiah" among all his other compositions that use words to communicate.

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra has re-entered the tradition of "Messiah" performances that remain so strong throughout the high-culture Anglophone world. Sunday afternoon at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church, Matthew Kraemer, ICO music director since last year, conducted a winning performance of the work with a 64-voice chorus comprising Encore Vocal Arts and the church's Sanctuary Choir.

A nice feeling of anticipation took hold immediately, with a well-shaped Overture. Tenor John McVeigh's approach to "Comfort ye" and "Ev'ry valley" (the initial recitative-and-aria combination through which the soloists present themselves) was commanding, though the promise of comfort in the recitative prematurely took on more of the transformation asserted in the aria. In subsequent appearances, McVeigh was especially impressive in the final phrases of the recitative "Thy rebuke hath broken his heart" and in the warning notes of the aria "Thou shalt break them." Success in the latter is important in heralding "Messiah"'s most popular chorus, "Hallelujah."

That chorus came through handsomely there, with the overlay of ICO trumpets. At other places, particularly in rapid passages, the sound was a little light, even skimpy — notably, "And he shall purify" and "For unto us a child is born." The tenor section, on the weak side there, had a few smooth and steady moments later, especially reinforcing the reassuring mood of "Their sound is gone out" during that chorus' second clause, "and their words unto the ends of the world."

The combined singers made the most of the mob's dismissive ferocity in "He trusted in God, that he would deliver him." The sense of finality without forcing was secure in the concluding "Amen" chorus. The singers conveyed well the mystery of messianic sacrifice in "and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all." And the chorus's first appearance, "And the glory of the Lord," was notable for clarity and balance. At other times, individual voices, particularly among the men, stood out a little more than they should have.

Trumpets in the gallery, underlining the choral message, gave an effective indication of the celestial outburst of "Glory to God" during the Nativity narrative that provides the main excuse for this Lenten oratorio to be customarily performed during Advent. The orchestra was in fine fettle throughout. Its accompaniment to the aria-cum-chorus "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion" was especially animated and precise. The sense that authentic good news was being shared was unmistakable. (Recitative accompaniment was consistently responsive and accurate, by the way.)

Of the other three soloists, Timothy LeFebvre's baritone was unusually suitable for his solos, perfectly placed.  A bass-baritone can be more effective in capturing the feeling of the early recitative and aria focusing on the contrast between darkness and light, but LeFebvre was in his element in "Why do the nations" and "The trumpet shall sound."

Soprano Sari Gruber had a bright, expertly ornamented command of "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!" She subtly varied her voice  between reporting the angel's appearance to the shepherds and quoting the angel. It was an unwelcome surprise for her to be introduced with the aria "But who may abide the day of His coming"; I have a personal preference, for dramatic reasons, for the soprano soloist being withheld until the Nativity portion. But, like most of the variants one encounters in "Messiah" performance, this one is also sanctioned by the composer,  like the untypical 12/8 meter of "Rejoice greatly."

It's almost embarrassing to admit that what I looked forward to most about attending this "Messiah" was again hearing mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westra in the oratorio's great alto solos. Exquisitely well-trained and under control, her voice has a kind of unvarnished purity that one hesitates to call "plain," but, if so, it's a plainness in service to the music's emotion, and thus without affectation. I found it unbelievably touching from the recitative "Behold! A virgin shall conceive" — which is the centerpiece of the topological meaning of "Messiah," its assertion of Old Testament prophecy of Christ's coming — through the duet with tenor "O death, where is thy sting?"

Her manner in "O thou that tellest" seemed to me to inspire the orchestra, though I may be reading into it. At every point when she sang, I felt I was getting insight into Handel's heart: In "Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened," in "Thou art gone up on high," and particularly in "He was despised." In that aria, with its "B" section detailing the torture of Jesus, Westra seemed to be applying the text's particularities to the appalling practice of torture in our own time upon so many innocent and marginalized people. To blend the intimate with the universal message as well as she did struck me as magical.

One more related note on the meaning of "Messiah": The decision to cut one number  before "Worthy is the Lamb," while not disastrous, had the effect of reducing the rhetorical punch of the piece toward the end. Omitting "If God be for us"  removes part of the justification for praising the subject of the last chorus and, indeed, of the whole work. It is admittedly a small matter of regret in the context of a fine performance.