More than 4,500 singers and instrumentalists filed into London’s high-Gothic Westminster Abbey to perform George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” in 1784 — a quarter-century after his death. By 1859, “Handelomania” had become a British fixture; a group of 3,225 musicians trooped into the city’s Crystal Palace to present the oratorio. Such lavish affairs heralded a mix of imperial Britain’s pomp and circumstance and a profusion of amateur choral societies thirsting to sing. Today, campaigns galore for “authentic” performances of early music call for drastically reduced choruses and orchestras playing “period” instruments. Scholars still quarrel over these matters, but actually, “Messiah” has never been performed precisely as originally composed, for Handel himself continually revised it to accommodate the size of audiences and venues.
On Saturday, Strathmore artistic director Stan Engebretson conducted the National Philharmonic Chorale and Orchestra in “Messiah” at Bethesda’s Strathmore Music Center in a compelling version of the piece’s scriptural reflection on Jesus’ life. The chorus was phenomenal, totally responsive to Engebretson’s directions and equipped with the confidence of frequent singing from memory. The singers numbered almost 200 and the orchestra half that — considered the norm for large groups today.
The chorus heeded their conductor’s every gesture, the singers ranging from a thundering crowd proclaiming “Let us break their bonds asunder” and a lamenting mob on “All we like sheep have gone astray” down to more personal, private expression, as in “And he shall purify” and “His yoke is easy.” Though enlisting a large choral force, Engebretson created the illusion of light textures by insisting on Triple Crown tempos and super-clean articulate diction and by reinforcing the pulse of Handel’s frisky dance movements. Above all, he attended to every emotion Handel offered, conveying the drama of a genre lacking opera’s visual apparatus with clearly formed characters, staging, sets and an obvious “story line.”
The audience expectably stood for the “Hallelujah Chorus,” though — contrary to the program notes — we still have no credible evidence as to whether King George II stood or was even present at any “Messiah” performance. Soprano Danielle Talamantes coupled rich vibrancy with stellar fluency, even in the most involved ornamentation. Margaret Mezzacappa was a perfect match, her mezzo brimming over with agility and warmth. Tenor Matthew Loyal Smith sang with vibrancy, every sustained note open and supported. Bass Kevin Thompson, however, had some difficulties in projection and tonal refinement.
Porter is a freelance writer.