It is pointless to complain about the annual ritual of Christmastime performances of Handel’s oratorio “Messiah.” Yes, the work is focused on the passion and death of Jesus, making it more appropriate to Eastertide, when it was first performed in Dublin in 1742. It is not a liturgical work, either, intended as it was for a public theater, with the circuslike intermission feature of Handel performing his own organ concertos: Jonathan Swift, then dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, almost scuttled the premiere by initially forbidding cathedral choristers to take part in the performance because of the perceived crossing of sacred-secular lines. Still, no one can begrudge the National Symphony Orchestra its yearly slop at the “Messiah” trough, when in spite of the gluttonous saturation of the city’s churches and auditoriums with performances of this oratorio, the ensemble can expect to fill the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with people, many of whom do not regularly buy NSO tickets.
One does complain, however, when the NSO turns in a run-of-the-mill performance, as it did on Thursday night. Not a bad one by any means, but in recent seasons the NSO has found better ways to enliven its December “Messiah” with unusual performance choices. Last year, the guest conductor spot went to Rinaldo Alessandrini, one of the most exciting conductors in the historically informed performance (HIP) crowd, who led a fleet, crackling rendition. The year before that, Rossen Milanov dusted off the modern over-orchestration by Eugene Goossens, made infamous in a recording by Thomas Beecham, with pumped-up brass and memorable intrusions for harp, cymbal crash and triangle.