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A Fresh Take on 'Messiah'

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By Grace Jean
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 22, 2006

It is difficult to make a work as familiar and cyclical as Handel's "Messiah" sound fresh and innovative. But last night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the National Symphony Orchestra delivered the holiday favorite in such an exploratory and energized fashion that one would have had thought it was its first -- and not its 54th -- annual performance of the oratorio.

This year, the NSO joined forces with one of Washington's oldest vocal ensembles, the Cathedral Choral Society, under the direction of Kenneth Slowik. Both groups were dramatically reduced in numbers onstage -- about 50 or so voices and about 25 instrumentalists -- resulting in a warm intimacy of sound capable of transporting listeners to a distant past.

The choristers sang with unflagging ebullience and clarity of diction. Their voices were as cohesive and responsive as the orchestra's musicians were reverential and precise.

Neither group was encumbered by the composition's many ornate passages, which flowed and bubbled along with confidence.

Slowik, who is better known as an accomplished cellist and artistic director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society, emphasized the musical phrases with his hands rather than beating out strict tempos with a baton. He may not be a podium-stomping, arm-waving maestro, but he is definitely a musician's conductor, and it showed in the dynamic expression he was able to elicit from his charges.

The assembled soloists each had distinctive qualities, some better than others. Christine Brandes wielded a cool and clear soprano that carried through the hall with a weightless fluidity. Her gift in drawing out long and emotive phrases was matched by baritone Nathaniel Watson, whose lively voice had a commanding presence and a beguiling drama about it.

Tenor John Elwes held out his notes sweetly, but he had a tendency to gain a rougher edge to his voice when singing more emphatic lines.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane's dark timbre had trouble cutting through the bright orchestral textures. She had better success singing in the upper register, especially when accompanied by only harpsichord.

Legend has it that England's King George II rose when he heard the "Hallelujah" chorus for the first time, prompting those in attendance to also rise -- classical music's equivalent to baseball's "seventh-inning stretch." That tradition has lasted through the centuries and was upheld by yesterday's near-capacity audience, which applauded at its conclusion.

The only thing that marred the evening was the latecomers who were admitted into the hall following the first chorus. No doubt these concertgoers were caught in the messy holiday traffic, but this distraction caused a long pause in the performance. To his credit, Slowik started back up and didn't miss a beat.

The NSO's four-night run of "Messiah" is popular; tomorrow's repeat performance is sold out. But you can still get tickets to tonight's concert at 7 and Sunday's at 1 p.m. Call 202-467-4600.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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