Music Review: National Symphony Orchestra's 'Messiah'

Guest conductor Martin Haselböck
Guest conductor Martin Haselböck
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 2008

How many "Messiahs" does it take to change the mood of an audience from gay to Grinchy? Every December, classical music organizations in cities across America seem intent on finding out. Handel's oratorio has become the "Nutcracker" of choruses and orchestras, programmed as if it were a quick way to make a buck at holiday time, coming invested with the spirit of Christmas.

Don't get me wrong: I love "Messiah." And my childhood memory of being taken by my mother to a "Messiah" singalong has endured, in the proper rosy glow. But I am not sure that the "Messiah-fication" of the classical holiday season does this piece any favors.

For one thing, the whole work isn't all that beloved: What are beloved are the greatest hits -- including "O Thou That Tellest," "Comfort Ye," "And the Glory of the Lord" and, of course, "Hallelujah" -- and there's an awful lot of oratorio to sit through in between highlights. For another, it isn't all about Christmas: The story of Christ's birth is covered in Part 1, but then Parts 2 and 3 extend through Christ's life and Resurrection. In Germany, "Messiah" is more commonly encountered at Easter; the work that gets "Nutcracker" treatment is Bach's set of Christmas oratorios.

In Washington, where there have been several "Messiahs" already this month, one answer to the question of audience tolerance was answered by the unusual ranks of empty seats in the auditorium for the National Symphony Orchestra's first outing of the work last night. And there are three more to go.

What was offered, however, was sprightly and fluid enough to gladden the heart of any serious music lover. Last night was the NSO debut of Martin Haselböck, an Austrian conductor known for his work in what is now known as historically informed performance, and he presented a cogent reading that had the verve and scale of a period orchestra, but with modern instruments. His tempos were brisk and bouncy, and the piece moved along, with a few cuts, at breakneck speed. He, however, made no concessions to the audience in terms of showmanship. This was a serious reading, not a play to the crowd; the drama lay in the musical line rather than in any artificially forced sense of theater.

Haselböck's one weakness, in fact, was that he could have used a little more emotional animation. The light tautness of the music was a fine antidote to a traditional tendency to overstuff this work, but the sense of wonder -- in, for example, the cluster of recitatives beginning "There were shepherds abiding in the field," telling of the appearance of the angel to announce the birth of Christ -- was missing. Sometimes the rapid beats felt as if they were inflicted on the music, limiting it rather than illuminating it from within. But this is a quibble about an engaging performance.

The performing forces were excellently scaled: a small group of NSO players, minus some of the familiar principals; 50-odd members of the Master Chorale of Washington, making for a chorus that was big enough to have impact but small enough to be flexible and slim; and four vocal soloists (three making NSO debuts) whose voices were well matched in size and sound quality.

"Messiah" is a nice showcase for a good tenor, since he gets to open the evening with a splash with "Comfort Ye" (though he has to sit silent for most of the rest of Part 1), and Steve Davislim was the night's standout; his voice was light and richly colored, and he used it with impressive finesse (including some fun ornamental touches in "Comfort Ye," though I wish he had gone further).

Christine Brandes, the one NSO veteran of the bunch, showed her fine, hard, cool soprano; it is not a limpid sound, but an accurate and attractive one. Joshua Hopkins, the baritone, has a fine voice but was not fully master of the music; it seemed to be leading him, rather than the other way round.

The NSO followed a frequent trend by casting the alto part as a countertenor. The problem with that is the voice can tire under the demands of the part; this certainly happened to Carlos Mena, who had a nice ringing tone but had trouble sustaining the longest vocal part of the evening.

"Hallelujah," of course, is the part that everyone waits for, and Haselböck almost willfully defied expectation by starting it not only fluidly, but also quietly, with a marvelous lack of bombast that might have disappointed some listeners, but which stayed in keeping with a rigorous interpretation that was true to the spirit of the work, rather than that of Christmas marketing.

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