Monday, December 3, 2018

A tidy 'Messiah' treated expansively in an inaugural Second Presbyterian and Indy Baroque collaboration

Long after George Bernard Shaw deplored the ungainly size of Victorian-era performing forces in "Messiah," fans of Handel's oratorio now usually encounter one of two correctives: Large choruses, well-trained, have become adept at surmounting the choral difficulties and, on the other hand, small vocal ensembles — Shaw wished for "a chorus of twenty capable artists" — have gained greater acceptance in concert and on recordings.

The latter course was smartly chosen by Michelle Louer of Second Presbyterian Church in two
Michelle L. Louer conducted trim, fit forces.
performances over the weekend in collaboration with the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra. She conducted the trim vocal and instrumental forces in an insightful and fully expressive, but resolutely unshowy, concert Sunday afternoon at the church.

Going Shaw's wish several singers fewer, she had trained the church's 15-voice Beecher Singers to meet Handel's demands expertly. More important, the chorus size suited well the chamber-orchestra accompaniment, which sounded more subtle and caressing with "period" instruments than modern ones. And the vocal soloists were drawn from her choir, so that in neither appearance nor sound was there any danger of grandstanding.

This set-up, and several other choices regarding the distribution of solos and the relative novelty today of a chorus appended to the duet "How beautiful are the feet," was explicitly to honor the Dublin premiere in the spring of 1742. There were also interpretive choices that, despite the church setting and the pastor's welcoming prayer, re-established "Messiah" as what its devout librettist, Charles Jennens, frankly called "a fine Entertainment."

That reminder has to be set against Jennens' clever arrangement of biblical texts that follow the practice of typology, the supposed foretelling in the Old Testament of the foundational Christ narrative in the New. This once was basic to Christian use of the Hebrew Bible in sermons and religious education. The King James Version I was given as a boy is loaded with epigraphs intended to guide pious reading, stretched to the maximum typologically by such nudges as glossing the erotic imagery of the Song of Solomon to illustrate "the mutual love of Christ and his church," for instance.

Yesterday during the performance's second intermission,  a gentleman sitting near me, alluding to the typology, marveled that "Messiah" seemed to him "the Christian ISIS — so fanatical!" There is thus room for the oratorio to be taken as an extreme profession of faith as well as a fine entertainment. Because of its glorious music, "Messiah" seems to rest comfortably on that rich double meaning: still, Hector Berlioz, no stranger to religious grandiosity himself, thought the "Amen" finale blasphemous; like many others, I am always satisfyingly "entertained" by it, as I was Sunday.

In any case, contemporary American performances of "Messiah" tend to be well past the Victorian era's "Messiah" elephantiasis, summed up as "a case of sustained enormity" by the scholar Richard Luckett. This had several conspicuous advantages in what I heard Sunday. The opening chorus of Part II, "Behold the Lamb of God," is often performed somberly as a heavy invitation to get our frowny faces on in preparation for arias and choruses referencing the Passion of Christ.

On Sunday, the pared-down choral force and a slightly animated tempo for "Behold" served as a reminder that "Messiah" bears essentially glad tidings of a sacrifice designed to "take away the sin of the world." A lighter choral texture also invites reflectiveness on the listener's part. A little later, after the straying-flock imitation (pointedly effective Sunday) in the first part of "All we like sheep," the reminder that "the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all" sets us right on the reason for the season — especially when we remember that the oratorio is weighted toward the events that culminate in Easter, the season of its premiere. Call it fine entertainment or a confirmation of faith, it worked.

Large choruses that are conscientiously prepared can make more of dynamic contrasts, and with luck they don't have trouble staying together in fast passages. The thousand-voice choruses of Shaw's day prudently slowed, sounding "lumbering" in the process. Only the last syllable of "purify" (in "And he shall purify") sounded effortful to me in this performance. And, in "For unto us," I liked the way each section followed the sinuous path to the summit of "born" accurately without planting the flag, as it were.

Sometimes a large choir's loud-soft displays don't particularly put across the text: In the "Hallelujah" Chorus, why is "The kingdom of this world is become" sometimes rendered in hushed tones, with a big crescendo on "is become" to herald the Lord's eternal reign and a resumption of all the hallelujahs? Is the kingdom of this world a secret? None of that push-pull was evident Sunday. The Beecher Singers were far from monochromatic, but the small choir refrained from showing off spectrum extremes. "His yoke is easy, and His burden is light" was a great instance where loud-soft shadings were effectively displayed.

The Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra was a treat to hear. It played the "Pifa (Pastoral Symphony)" without a conductor, and with a buoyancy and alertness that indicated the shepherds about to be startled were indeed "keeping watch over their flocks by night," not sleeping. There were choruses to which the ensemble contributed some deft shaping of phrases, such as those between lines of text in "O thou that tellest good tidings of Zion." I found sufficiently descriptive the angry, murmuring bustle of the strings during the bass aria "Why do the nations" — even without the bite that modern instruments give to the accompaniment. The same goes for the "refiner's fire" passage in the early bass aria "But who may abide."

As for the soloists, Louer spread the responsibilities around, mostly to great effect. First off was the strong projection and expressiveness of David Smolokoff in the tenor recitative and aria that immediately follow the overture. If the tenor isn't good in those two pieces, some of the life of any "Messiah" to follow is quickly siphoned off. Not to worry in this case, and Smolokoff was just as convincing with the dire picture of divine wrath in "Thou shalt break them," effectively setting up the triumphalism of "Hallelujah."

I can't single out everyone, but in terms of fitness of a particular solo voice to a particular task, I must mention tenor John Brewer in the Part II group of recitatives and arias starting with the poignancy of "Thy rebuke hath broken His heart." Also, the brilliance and good-news spiritedness of alto Mitzi Westra in "Thou art gone up on high," bass Samuel Spade's deep-delving contrasts of light and darkness in the recitative and aria preceding the "For unto us" chorus, and baritone David Rugger's richly suggestive, dramatic "Behold, I tell you a mystery." It made for a fine introduction to the work's longest aria, "The trumpet shall sound," which never fails to be soul-stirring, even when processed through a secular sensibility like mine.

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