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Concentrated power of NSO's 'Messiah' revives an old chestnut

Saturday, December 18, 2010; C02

You have to hand it to "Messiah." George Frideric Handel's mighty oratorio has long been saddled with "holiday music" status, trundled out every year with the turkey, the mistletoe and (at our house, anyway) "Alvin and the Chipmunks Sing Christmas Hits." It's performed with such ear-numbing regularity - there are no fewer than 18 performances around town this month - that even die-hard Handel lovers could be excused for getting a little tired of the thing.

But despite all that, "Messiah" can still triumph magnificently, as the Italian conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini demonstrated in a trimmed-down, high-octane performance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Thursday night. Alessandrini has made a name for himself over the past decade by rethinking and reinvigorating the early music repertoire, and he pared "Messiah" down to its essentials, using a mere 30 players from the National Symphony Orchestra, a similarly modest choir from the University of Maryland and the four soloists. The lean ensemble let Alessandrini fly through the work, sometimes at a devil-may-care tempo, with precise, beautifully articulated counterpoint and extraordinary detail. The usual large-forces "Messiah" can sometime bulldoze listeners into rapture, but Alessandrini's take was an exhilarating revelation.

Fine performances by the soloists added to the excitement, though the women outsung the men by a distinct margin. The Swedish soprano Klara Ek was particularly memorable (her voice is angelic, if you'll pardon the cliche), while mezzo Alisa Kolosova brought real dramatic power to her arias. The University of Maryland Concert Choir was impressive for such a young group, handling Alessandrini's exuberant direction with aplomb. In short, this is a must-hear performance, even if you think you're "Messiah"-ed out. The program repeats Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.

- Stephen Brookes

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