George Frideric Handel wrote “Messiah” in 24 days. The piece has been going strong for 276 years and shows no signs of flagging — a remarkable return on temporal investment. On Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, I lapsed into the pointless classical-music game of imagining the composer’s amazement had he been transported into the hall and found his piece performed, to a large audience, amid Christmas garlands and trees at either side of the stage.
Would he have been delighted, or merely surprised that it wasn’t “Samson,” the oratorio he wrote right after “Messiah,” that was enjoying this scale of popularity? Would he have been perplexed at the Christmas decorations for this Easter oratorio, or simply not recognized them as Christmassy at all, since Christmas trees didn’t become popular in England until a century or so after his death?
He would, though, have recognized some things, like the bright Baroque trumpets and perhaps even the taut tempos of Nicolas McGegan, who led a brisk, tight, rapid performance with simultaneous verve (syllables bouncing through the music like rubber balls) and restraint (voices pulled back time and again from dynamic excess, even at big climaxes). Would he have recognized it as a performance with elements of his time? Or would he have wondered why it wasn’t, well, more flashy and bombastic?
Such speculations verge on cliche, but it’s always good to challenge assumptions about a piece as often-played as “Messiah.” The National Symphony Orchestra does a fine job of mixing up its annual performances, sometimes offering the kind of large-scale spectacle popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, though its emphasis has generally been on the historically informed approach espoused by conductors like McGegan, who conducted it here in 2014.
On Thursday, the conductor led a stripped-down orchestra and four light-voiced soloists, anchored by the edgy tenor of Miles Mykkanen, looking and sounding like an apparition from the 1930s, and supported by the robust honest baritone William Berger, growling out his ornaments with a will. Meg Bragle was an eminently capable mezzo who didn’t give her voice much breath support, leaving it smaller and less colorful than it might have been despite her excellent musicality. As for the soprano Yulia Van Doren, she let it be announced that she was suffering from a cold, which didn’t affect the upper extension of her silvery soprano, but did leave it sounding a little thinner and more pinched than it might have in the pink of health.
The star of the show, though, was the University of Maryland Concert Choir, which has joined the city’s other symphonic choirs in regular rotation as an NSO partner, and which on this occasion was particularly outstanding. They sang colorfully, crisply, stringing shining chains of rapid notes across the score in hi-def clarity, and responding on a dime to McGegan’s gestures of speed and restraint. That the soloists sat at the sides of the stage, only coming to the center when they were actually called on to sing, contributed to the sense that the chorus was at the heart of this performance, particularly when all four stood and beamed at them as they sang the “Hallelujah” chorus.
The orchestra, too, in this reduced incarnation, sounded tight and responsive. McGegan is a noted specialist in historically informed performance, and will retire from his post as music director of the Philharmonia Baroque, one of the country’s leading early-music groups, at the end of the 2019-20 season. He has had 35 years in that post to hone his convictions about performance practice, and this tight, quick, slender “Messiah” was like a thesis statement of his beliefs. Would Handel have liked it? Does it matter? Certainly it made for a beguiling evening, though so light as to be evanescent, like a soap bubble.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon at 1.