National Symphony Orchestra and Matthew Halls offer average ‘Messiah’

December 15, 2011

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.

The choice this year of Matthew Halls, a HIP keyboard player who recently made the jump to conducting, recalled the less-satisfying choices of 2007 and 2008, when lesser-known HIP conductors led undistinguished performances. Halls gave the expected HIP zip to the fast tempos of the choruses and arias, sometimes with a little too much vinegar in the mix for the small orchestra of 20-some players. The lack of clarity in his beat caused some confusion, especially at the openings of movements where the possible subdivision of the beat was not apparent.

Soprano Kiera Duffy gave a sweet, stylish performance of the quasi-operatic scene describing the nativity, with some high-flying fireworks added to her arias. Tenor James Gilchrist, who has performed and recorded with several HIP ensembles, made the most satisfying contribution, the top of the voice a little worn but with admirable sensitivity. The other two soloists, counter-tenor Jay Carter and bass-baritone Tyler Duncan, should be thanked for filling in for indisposed colleagues who had to cancel that morning.

The Cathedral Choral Society was originally scheduled to perform with the NSO for this year’s “Messiah” (for the first time since 2006), but the group withdrew over the summer, leading to their replacement by last year’s performers, the University of Maryland Concert Choir. (Officials from both the NSO and CCS cited “scheduling and logistical problems” in response to questions about the change. The officials declined to elaborate any further on those problems.) For the most part, the student singers kept pace with the often outlandishly fast tempos chosen by Halls, with impeccable intonation but some ragged edges and seams in the melismatic passages.

To his credit, Halls leaned toward a dramatic conception of “Messiah,” creating little vignettes such as the laughing derision of the chorus “He trusted in God” followed by the tenor’s soft, saddened disappointment in the pairing of “Thy rebuke” and “Behold and see.” Placing the trumpets in the chorister seats above for the chorus “Glory to God” and cutting short the Pastoral Symphony, a reflective but often too long moment at the Nativity, were other good examples. This approach, intended to be daring, does not sit easily with the reverence often accorded to “Messiah,” the almost kitsch religiosity of many performances. As usual, George Bernard Shaw put it best when he wrote of the sentimental tradition of standing for the Hallelujah chorus, for example, as “the nearest sensation to the elevation of the Host known to English Protestants.”

This concert will be repeated three times through Sunday.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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