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Rolf Beck leads NSO, soloists in a workmanlike version of Handel’s ‘Messiah’

By Charles T. Downey,

Handel’s “Messiah” is a remarkably sturdy piece of music. How many other works could stand up so well to so many years of far too many performances?

The National Symphony Orchestra, for its annual performances of the work, has the admirable tradition of assigning it to a new conductor and new performers each year — a practice that helps to avoid monotony. This year’s “Messiah,” heard Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, was led by German conductor Rolf Beck, director of the Bamberg Symphony and the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival.

An oratorio specialist in the vein of Helmuth Rilling, Beck did not do anything particularly new or interesting with this most timeworn of scores, but he kept the tempos moving in places where the momentum often stalls.

It was Beck’s debut with the NSO, and his quartet of soloists was also mostly new to the ensemble. The only exception was countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who was also the voice you will most want to hear. He made quite a splash in the odd countertenor role of Prince Go-Go in Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre” with the New York Philharmonic, and he brought a similarly theatrical, even otherworldly, presence to the alto arias.

At the Dublin premiere of “Messiah” in 1742, a countertenor sang some of these pieces, including “Behold, a virgin shall conceive” and “O thou that tellest good tidings to Sion.” Now, they sat beautifully in Costanzo’s voice. If the top was a little shrill, it was powerful. And the bottom of the range was full and sure.

Costanzo did not return in the second half, not because he was indisposed, but because the showpiece of the second part, “He Was Despised” (written by Handel for a female contralto), was not performed — one of several cuts to the score that kept the performing time under two hours. None of the cuts was made in the Christmas section, which soft-pedaled the libretto’s emphasis on the passion and resurrection of Christ.

Top among the other soloists, Sunnyboy Vincent Dladla had a bright, slightly nasal sound in the tenor arias, albeit with some odd twists in the English pronunciation (South African, it turns out). Katherine Whyte took the soprano arias all on the fast side and still had to breathe in the middle of many of the longer phrases, with a tone that was airy and light. Bass Scott Conner had an off night and struggled to make it through his last two arias clearly rattled, but we can hope he’ll recover.

The University of Maryland Concert Choir performed the choral parts for the third straight year. They were, as always, well prepared by director Edward Maclary, with the only missing element being the real oomph you get from a larger chorus in the loudest sections.

The chamber-size NSO played crisply, although Beck’s gestures were not always clear enough for them to play as one. William Neil, seated at a beautiful chamber organ, added some diverting figuration to the continuo part. Beck’s conception of the score, while concise and with the right propulsion, became overly affected at times, as with the staccato articulations added to some of the choral lines, especially in “All We Like Sheep” and “He Trusted in God.”

Downey is a freelance writer.

This concert will be repeated three times through Sunday. As part of an annual tradition, donations of canned food to the Capital Area Food Bank will be accepted at the entrances of the Concert Hall.

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