In the past two weeks, we have had a pops "Messiah," a bunch of church choir "Messiahs," a couple of suburban community "Messiahs" and a do-it-yourself "Messiah." At the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall last night, the National Symphony gave us what could best be described as a Margaret Hillis "Messiah." Handel, showman that he was, would have loved it.
Hillis, founder and director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, brooks no nonsense on the podium. She plants her feet, starts waving her baton and nothing, nothing at all, interrupts the flow of the music until the final "Amen." Choruses followed arias followed recitatives last night without any pause. All this gave the music a breathless quality, but also, in many places, a quality of almost exalted energy and exuberance. There were no moments of suspense here, but in its place was the proclamation of supreme confidence and of muscular Christianity. Trumpets in the balcony heralded "Glory to God" while on stage the chorus boomed out a defiant "and peace on Earth." "All We Like Sheep" was sung with extremely broad vowels, which made it sound like the bleating of sheep, and the "Pastoral Symphony," played without repeats and without much sense of repose, sounded impatient.
Robert Shafer's Oratorio Society of Washington did an outstanding job for Hillis. It took on the challenge of her fast tempos with rhythmic poise and exemplary diction, and maintained a lively and well-balanced sound throughout. Soloists John Aler and Andrew Wentzel delivered strong, wonderfully dramatic performances while Doralene Davis and Karen Brunssen were adequate but rather pedestrian.
Hillis had a quintet of first-chair strings accompany the soloists instead of the whole orchestra, which worked quite well, and the contrast when the rest of the instruments came in for emphasis or on the choruses was effective.
This was an intensely personal performance, a wonderful one, for all its quirks and foibles, that took chances and that represented a consistent and informed set of unconventional decisions.