NSO's 'Messiah,' In Need of Salvation

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007

The National Symphony Orchestra has many strengths, but it is not naturally suited to baroque music as it is currently performed by the musical scholars who have ruled the field since the 1970s.

One suspects that Paul Goodwin, a highly regarded British conductor who led a drastically thinned-out version of the NSO in Handel's evergreen holiday hit "Messiah" last night at the Kennedy Center, could have done a fine job with another group. One suspects that the NSO would have done a pretty good job itself under a less dogmatic conductor. But the two did not work sympathetically together: What was intended to sound trim, propulsive and dancelike came across as stiff, trudging and foursquare, as though the musicians were struggling to fit themselves into a tight corset, and resenting every minute of it.

Especially in Part 1, the evening was a little like one of those science experiments where three or four perfectly good elements are mixed together and make a sudden mess of the laboratory.

The best showing came from the University of Maryland Concert Choir -- a fine, focused and remarkably clear-toned group with excellent diction; the headlong, racing energy it brought to "He trusted in God" was little short of dazzling. Benjamin Butterfield sang the tenor role with taste, authority and agility; George Mosley was reliably fierce in the baritone arias. Claudia Huckle has a light mezzo-soprano voice that she employed with deft empathy (a strong "He was despised," despite Goodwin's brisk tempos). And I liked soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot's pert brightness, while finding her rapid vibrato rather too intense at times.

I suspect that the remaining performances -- which will take place tonight and tomorrow night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 1 -- may be more satisfying, for by the time Goodwin, the NSO and the choir reached "Hallelujah!" about two hours into the program, they seemed to be listening to each other and perhaps beginning to enjoy each other's company somewhat more. I hope so.

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