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The Latest 'Messiah': Its Burden Is Light

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page C07

My, but Handel's "Messiah" is a lovely thing. It's hard to imagine hearing any other work as often as we hear "Messiah" -- it is ubiquitous every December and sometimes at Easter, too -- without becoming bored. When the National Symphony Orchestra presented the first in its annual series of "Messiah" renditions last night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Handel's music cast its familiar spell.

The NSO does "Messiah" a little differently each year. Last night, the British conductor Paul Goodwin made his local debut, leading soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot, countertenor Brian Asawa, tenor Benjamin Butterfield and baritone George Mosley, as well as the Master Chorale of Washington (prepared by Donald McCullough) in what was, for the most part, a fleet, joyful rendition.

Paul Goodwin will conduct the NSO in Handel's Christmastime classic. (Hans Hordijk)

I liked the conversational way the soloists sang their music. They did not proclaim, but rather confided, person to person. Cabot has a bright, sweet voice, supple in all but the fastest coloratura passages. Asawa has an unusually light countertenor voice -- at times, he sounds more like a male soprano than an alto -- yet "He was despised" rang out with passion and gravity. Butterfield has a tidy and expressive tenor voice, and Mosley sang with immaculate taste and empathy.

Goodwin likes his "Messiah" fast, and at moments the chorus, soloists and orchestra clearly had some difficulty keeping up with him. "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" could not have been much more radiantly cheerful, however, and I much enjoyed the sort of boogie beat that he brought out in the accompaniment to "All We Like Sheep."

I prefer a grander "Hallelujah" -- it seemed a little cut and dried last night, as though Goodwin were doing his best to erase all memories of the booming, 5,000-voice renditions that once filled the Royal Albert Hall. The English, in particular, seem to have an allergy to Victorian-style "Messiah" performances. Not me. One of the eternal wonders of "Messiah" is the way it survives all sorts of processing and remains triumphantly itself.

The program will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night at 8, and Sunday afternoon at 1.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company