Friday, December 22, 2017

Indianapolis Symphonic Choir presents its annual "Messiah" in the Palladium, with four guest soloists and conductor

For certain music-lovers, Handel's "Messiah" can trace and illuminate a lifetime. Its meanings — both musical and religious — are likely to change over many years of exposure. Some of its solos and choruses are staples of Christmas programming in many churches during this season. I first thrilled to "The trumpet shall sound" in the early 1950s when the bass soloist at the church my father served as organist-choirmaster sang it at Easter.
Michael Christie led a lively, supple account of "Messiah."

Eric Stark, director of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, once told me he had given up trying to schedule "Messiah" in the season for which it was intended. Its bulk and sheer emotional weight is appropriate to spring performance. Well, fans of the piece learn not to be sticklers, and we return to it again and again in Advent, where just the first of the oratorio's three parts is at home.

This weekend's two performances by the choir Stark has so ably led for so long enjoy the extra splendor of presentation in Carmel's Palladium. Four soloists, the choir, and the Indianapolis  Symphony Orchestra are conducted by Michael Christie, music director of the Minnesota Opera. (He shares an extramusical commitment with Stark: both are volunteer pilots for Angel Flight Central.)

George Frideric Handel
As heard Thursday, the soloist contingent reflected the conductor's inclination toward opera — least so with the soprano, Christina Pier, who was oratorioly expressive without dramatic emphasis. There was nothing unidiomatic about male alto Lawrence Zazzo, tenor Miles Mykkanen, or baritone Alexander Elliott, I hasten to add. It's just that the way the men put across their solos brought characterization to the forefront gesturally, vocally, and in facial expression. All four soloists ornamented repeated phrases and cadential figures confidently and tastefully (as did trumpeter Conrad Jones in the magnificent obbligato to "The trumpet shall sound"). Apart from a few cracked notes by Mykkanen and Pier's tendency not to open her mouth sufficiently, they were consistently a joy to hear.

The choir was responsive to Christie's supple, lively direction. He took pains not to present the choruses as monoliths — a temptation easy to yield to in a masterpiece that resembles  a sculpture garden. He imparted dynamic variety throughout. Musically it mostly made sense, even if it sometimes came close to contradicting the text: After the men's thundering "The Lord gave the word," for instance, it was peculiar to hear "great was the company of the preachers" delivered like a secret. "Hallelujah," the ultimate in monolithic choruses, featured the conventionally soft "The kingdom of this world is become," but elsewhere there were also crescendos and diminuendos applied, to slightly woozy effect. Yet I saw the point of inserting those hairpins: no matter how loftily we praise God, we're still only humans, aren't we.

Some blurriness in "And she shall purify the sons of Levi" was whisked away by the time of "For unto us a child is born" arrived. It's not the first time in my experience that the former has served as calisthenics for the latter in Part 1. "And the glory of the Lord," the choir's initial number, had a nice swing to it. In fact, animating rhythms both gentle and vigorous seemed to be a Christie specialty. The orchestra often played with a kind of lilt, most conspicuously in the Pastoral Symphony and in some accompaniment passages. Also giving solidity and sprightliness to the ensemble were Charles Manning (organ) and Thomas Gerber (harpsichord).

For some reason, though I'm much less a Christian than I was when I first encountered "Messiah," I've become more desirous of hearing the complete piece in concert. That rarely happens, presumably a matter of avoiding overtime pay for professional ensembles. So I get wistful about what's left out, particularly in Part 2. The most jarring cut in this program is the elimination of two tenor recitatives and two arias separating the choruses "He trusted in God" and "Lift up your heads."

The missing Old Testament texts, to which Handel set some of his most piercing music, are of course to be interpreted as depicting Christ's sufferings, according to what's called topology. To shortchange the afflicted Jesus, bound temporarily for torture, death and hell, and announce dismissively, "Enough of that! Let's welcome the King of Glory, mobilize the great company of preachers and spread the gospel," is kind of painful — on both theological and musico-dramatic grounds. And the chorus suddenly seems bipolar, switching from "turba" nastiness (the angry mob familiar from the Bach Passions) to angelic voices of praise.

The cut further tends to push the import of Part 2 too heavily in the direction of "Hallelujah," which admittedly everyone in a "Messiah" audience has been panting for, awaiting the chance to stand up as George II did more than 250 years ago. (In the late 18th century, a German soprano soloist who kept her seat for that chorus was hissed by the English audience. Not rising for "Hallelujah" is a venerable antecedent to NFL players taking a knee during our national anthem.)

Though briefer, this version's "most unkindest cut of all" in my view was the elimination of the middle section of "He was despised," an alto aria that Mykkanen performed in effective operatic style, but without the scarifying energy of "He gave his back to the smiters," which ends with a passage that once amused me in the throes of immaturity: "He hid not his face from shame and spitting."

Handel had a special feeling for this aria, I believe, channeled through his admiration for the singer who premiered it: the charismatic Susannah Cibber, who was primarily a singing actress of great renown and some notoriety in her personal life. I also find this aria the crux of the oratorio's daring blend of human pain and the promise of divine glory.

It's rare to hear a performance that seems of both this world and the next. When you do, you've gathered into one place both the mystery and majesty of "Messiah."  But you need that middle section, with the strings flailing like whips and the soloist waxing specific as to just how the hero was "acquainted with grief."

It sticks with you, making "Hallelujah" many minutes later feel that much the greater. And why wouldn't you want to get that much more out of the Hallelujah Chorus than you already do?