Handel's "Messiah" is like a favorite aunt. We know she will arrive every year about this time, and we are well acquainted with her virtues and her defects. That familiarity simply makes us enjoy her all the more.
We have met "Messiah" in many forms, from the bloated versions of earlier periods to the trim, sometimes almost skinny, style of more recent times. Last night at the Kennedy Center, Robert Shaw offered a "Messiah" that was blessed with elegance, wisdom and beauty. His direction combined both strong forward motion and a satisfying sense of spaciousness. Without ever losing momentum, he nonetheless extended the most sensitive flexibility to the singers, giving them all the time they needed to shape glorious phrases and then imperceptibly tightening the pace when more impetus was needed.
From the deliberate tempo and thoughtful character of the overture, Shaw made clear his intention to reach into the deeper side of "Messiah" and stress its theme of man's redemption. The emotional core of his interpretation lay in the tenor's aria of the second part -- "Behold, and see if there be any sorrow" -- which seemed to embody, particularly in Seth McCoy's delicately molded solo, the essential loneliness of the human condition.
McCoy and the three other soloists were finely attuned to Shaw's direction, offering particularly expressive renderings of the texts. Soprano Phyllis Bryn Julson's pure, clear sound radiated joy, and her final ascent on the word "intercession" rang out like a benediction. Contralto Eunice Alberts made all of her passages glow with the richness of her tone and the warmth of her intelligence. Baritone Tom Krause brought a superb dramatic sense to his part, effectively using his large, handsome voice to bring out the operatic side of Handel's writing.
"Messiah" will be repeated at the Kennedy Center tonight, Friday and Saturday at 8:30 and Sunday afternoon at 3:00. It is worth renewing the acquaintance.