Glover leads a shining “Messiah” with Philharmonic
With the possible exception of the 1812 Overture, there is no piece in the concert canon more strongly affixed to a calendar date than Handel’s Messiah. Throughout the English-speaking world it begins to flood the musical landscape in the second week of December each year, only to recede into hibernation again after swarms of performances by professional, semi-professional, and amateur ensembles. Nearly three centuries after its premiere, the two-and-a-half-hour oratorio still dominates the holiday calendar, making good on its promise to “reign forever and ever.”
The New York Philharmonic began its contribution to the seasonal field Tuesday night, offering the first of five consecutive performances at David Geffen Hall. Standing out among the forest of Messiahs this time of year, Tuesday’s concert served as a reminder of just why this piece enjoys such an enduring popularity.
Tuesday’s concert marked the Philharmonic debut of Jane Glover, who seemed to have no trouble at all communicating with the orchestra. Some questionable tuning in the strings aside (exposed by a period-sensitive economy of vibrato), the musicians played with considerable polish. Their sound, though light and buoyant as called for in the Baroque style, never felt anemic–on the contrary, it was nuanced and colorful, as Glover led them in what was on the whole a shining rendition of the beloved oratorio.
The four vocal soloists gave admirable performances of their own. Soprano Heidi Stober was was solid as ever, singing with security and ease. Though the bright acoustic of the hall did not flatter her, lending her voice a piercing quality, her sensitive phrasing and strong presence made her a strong anchor for the cast. Nowhere was she more convincing than in “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” where she combined righteous passion with her richest tone.
Singing the alto part, Tim Mead showed an unusually steady tone for a countertenor. His voice is nimble, and was positively beaming in “But who may abide,” accompanied by sputtering flames in the strings. Tenor Paul Appleby seemed to be fighting against himself early on, trying to sing more lightly than his instrument would allow. He was at his best when he simply sang at full voice, his natural power and amber tone ringing out.
The most impressive member of the quartet was Roderick Williams, a baritone with a firm, lean voice that carries a whiff of smoke. His superb diction made him a powerful presence in what is mostly a declamatory role, thrilling in “Why do the nations and singing with regal charisma in “The trumpet shall sound.”
The true stars of the evening, though, were the students of Rider University’s Westminster Choir College, appearing here as the Westminster Symphonic Choir. Composed of bright, clear voices from top to bottom, the chorus sang with full tone, whether in the spellbinding hush at the close of “All we like sheep” or in the joyous exclamation of the “Hallelujah!” chorus. They dispatched the complex fugues with clockwork precision and sang the tricky extended melismata with flowing ease, sounding truly professional in every sense.
Handel’s Messiah will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. Friday, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at David Geffen Hall. nyphil.org