So deeply screwed-up was the Covid Christmas of 2020 that I spent the whole holiday numbing myself with nothing but Beethoven and an unfathomably slow remix of Wham!’s “Last Christmas.” The following year marked a slight increase in detectable public merriment levels — but most of us remained more concerned with the arrival of delta and omicron than Donner and Blitzen.
They say you can’t force the Christmas spirit. To that I say: Watch me. Determined to feel something festive this year, I decided to go all in on the “Messiah,” attending three full performances of Handel’s 1741 masterpiece by three orchestras in one week: the New York Philharmonic (Dec. 13 at David Geffen Hall), the National Symphony Orchestra (Dec. 15 at the Kennedy Center) and the National Philharmonic (Dec. 17 at Strathmore).
That’s nearly 8½ hours of concentrated exaltation!
Even in the hands of the most capable players, the familiar flavor and heft of the “Messiah” — a sprawling three-part oratorio alternating between recitatives and airs sung by four soloists and punctuated by colorful choral episodes — can land with all the delicacy of a fruitcake.
Meaning, in multiple aspects, keeping the mass (both senses) of the “Messiah” afloat is a group project: The orchestra and chorus must move between celebratory buoyancy and celestial bombast; the soloists must thread themselves seamlessly through its silken surfaces; even the audience must listen with a little more devotion than usual. Not to mention standing through the “Hallelujah” — a tradition allegedly started by King George II in 1743, possibly the result of His Majesty snapping awake.
The New York Philharmonic first performed music from the “Messiah” as individual arias in 1854 and 1855. It was the rival New York Symphony that performed the whole piece first in 1878 — and that would eventually merge with the Phil in 1928. Performances of the “Messiah” by the orchestra were sporadic through most of the 20th century, until 2002 when it returned and has endured as an annual staple.
This year marks the orchestra’s 53rd run of the “Messiah” and the first in its newly refashioned David Geffen Hall. And while conductor Masaaki Suzuki (founder of Bach Collegium Japan) brought seemingly boundless energy to the podium and shimmering detail out of the orchestra, he also struggled to grow the piece to fill the hall. There was a faintness to this first performance of the run (which concluded Dec. 17) — a closeness that sometimes read as too cautious. This was regularly remediated by the Handel and Haydn Society Chorus, 35 strong, who seized each verse with exciting attack and illuminated the music with fire and force through the evening.
Each soloist found a compelling path through the music: Soprano Sherezade Panthaki soared in her Part III air (“If God be for us, who can be against us?”), Swedish tenor Leif Aruhn-Solén lent distinctly steely colors to his invocation of the iron rod and Cree-Métis baritone Jonathon Adams, who identifies as two-spirit (a nonbinary identifier used within some Indigenous communities), impressed with a barrel-round sound and an arresting presence — especially in their Part III dialogue with Matthew Muckey’s pristine trumpet.
Countertenor Reginald Mobley was a particular highlight — his tone rich and generous, simmering and severe in his low register and pearl-smooth in the highs. It’s not often you get a countertenor singing this part — though the legendary Russell Oberlin sung it with the Phil in 1956, ’58 and ’59 (as well as twice with the National Symphony). Mobley brought lovely precision and expression to his airs in Part I (“Thou art gone up on high”) and Part II (“He was despised”), the latter revealing his talents as a storyteller in song.
As the New York Phil feels out this beautiful new space, it might consider ways to acoustically boost a Baroque-ified Phil (of just 32 players) — perhaps through some of its adjustable panels and baffles. If you can imagine it, even the seventh-inning stretch of the “Hallelujah” seemed somewhat shrunken in the wash.
Two nights later, lines from the New York Phil performance were blinking in my head like strands of lights as the National Symphony Orchestra took the festively bedecked Kennedy Center stage with the Choral Arts Society of Washington — an 80-40 split that consumed the available space.
My last encounter with the “Messiah” here was in 2021, when Gianandrea Noseda led the NSO, the University of Maryland Concert Choir and soloists from the Washington National Opera’s Cafritz Young Artists program. The program was constrained in number of performers and restrained to just “Part I” (paired with Bach’s “Magnificat”). Reduced as this presentation was, it marked a return to a work that the NSO has performed annually since 1953. (This most recent run of the “Messiah,” which concluded Dec. 18, marks 254 total performances.)
Whatever energy might have been stored up over the pandemic years was duly unleashed by guest conductor Fabio Biondi, who brought a windswept energy to his task. Stooping and springing, Biondi’s animated guidance of the “Messiah” infused it with fresh vitality — the violins and violas digging in hard through the night, as though the players were trying to spark kindling.
Like Noseda, Biondi knows how to negotiate energy and elegance while allowing neither to slide. This was a “Messiah” on fire — with a chorus that felt as combustible as the orchestra. They delivered a smoldering fugue in Part II (“He trusted in God”) and simmering tension in Part III (“Since by man came death”). But more than any other “Messiah” I took in this month, the chorus here felt like a true counterpart to the orchestra — a manifestation of divine symmetry.
The NSO’s crew of soloists, all making their debuts with the orchestra, were also superb — the beautiful fullness of tenor John Matthew Myers was a special treat, as was the unrelenting gusto of powerhouse bass-baritone Neal Davies. Soprano Liv Redpath and mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig each gave beguiling turns — Redpath offering an especially lithe reading of “Rejoice greatly” that had me rejoicing greatly.
Not listed on the program were the three or four neighbors around me in the audience who were staging their own unwittingly audible private performances. Grinchily, I sneered at first — but then caught myself and smiled politely. The “Messiah,” I intoned like a prayer, is a group project.
By the time I made it to Strathmore on Saturday for the last “Messiah” on my list and the first of the National Philharmonic’s string of performances (which concludes Friday at Capital One Hall), stretches of music from the previous evenings were swirling and overlapping in my memory — a mega-chorus singing a macro-fugue.
Conductor Stan Engebretson seemed to be facing a realer version of the same predicament — a 106-member National Philharmonic Chorale (for whom Engebretson is artistic director) loomed in the chorister seats over the 34-piece orchestra, which sometimes felt caught in the shadow of a massive crashing wave.
This top-heavy treatment of the “Messiah” isn’t uncommon — that centerpiece “Hallelujah” can justify just about any level of choral disproportion. But rising above the crash and froth of such a massive chorus does present a challenge for the musicians. Add to this the absence of harpsichord in this orchestration — and thus, the lack of that distinctive timbral tinsel that helped brighten the edges within the other two orchestras.
Still, the NatPhil fought hard to stay heard — finding exquisite leadership in concertmaster Laura Colgate, who brought intensity and intimacy to her lines, as well as limber expressiveness that authorized the rest of the players to lean in.
This “Messiah,” however, was all about the soloists — which even after a week of strong performances felt like something of a dream team. Soprano Kearstin Piper Brown and mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford were splendid surprises to me — the former’s tone bright but burnished, the latter’s rich and luxurious. The reliably solid tenor Norman Shankle was in particularly fine form, lending grace and humanity to lines that can easily land like announcements.
Insofar as one can steal the show of the “Messiah,” the commanding baritone Jorell Williams did so — a rock-solid singer with a keen understanding of his own expressive depths. But perhaps most enjoyable was observing the visible pleasure the singers took in listening to each other — like a little gift exchange onstage. And this time I may have joined the under-the-breath chorus.
In undertaking this “Messiah” marathon, I’m pretty sure I felt something beyond the customary palette of concert-going pleasures. I didn’t come to any critical determination about the one true “Messiah” (as clickable a headline as that would have made), but like recurring dreams, these repeat listens blurred into their own indistinct delight — a Christmassy spirit, if you will. (Halleloo!)
You could feel it in the lobby after each performance as we milled toward the exits, strangers holding the doors, smiling and singing little snatches of the oratorio to each other — everyone oddly charged up for 11 p.m. Done correctly, the “Messiah” can fill your memory with glorious music; but perhaps more critically, it can also top off your heart’s supply of goodwill — the only gift that’s better when you return it.