Manze leads the Philharmonic and friends in a vivid, triumphant “Messiah”

Wed Dec 13, 2017 at 12:35 pm
George Frideric Handel's "The Messiah" was performed by the New York Philharmonic led by Andrew Manze Tuesday night at David Geffen Hall. Painting by Thomas Hudson, 1748.

George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” was performed by the New York Philharmonic led by Andrew Manze Tuesday night at David Geffen Hall. Painting by Thomas Hudson, 1748.

The five performances of Handel’s Messiah the New York Philharmonic offers every December have become the orchestra’s Nutcracker—the seasonal favorite that gets a lot of folks in the door who might not otherwise attend Philharmonic concerts.

It also provides about two-thirds of the orchestra’s roster with a well-earned week off.  This is not the symphonic Handel of long-ago memory, with the stage stuffed with players and singers as if to perform music by Mahler.

Instead, in the series’ first performance Tuesday night, conductor Andrew Manze led a pared-down Philharmonic string section (supplemented by trumpets, timpani, harpsichord and organ) and a similarly slenderized Westminster Symphonic Choir in a Messiah that, for all its lightness and fleetness, lacked nothing in dramatic impact.

The triumph of the historically informed performance movement is now so complete–its techniques are required study in most music conservatories—that a conductor like Manze can emerge from the early-music scene, step in front of symphonic musicians, demand a period-instrument sound from their modern instruments, and get it.

On Tuesday, with a big boost from Manze’s animated podium presence, singers and players alike delivered shapely phrases in slender, transparent, almost vibratoless tone, lifted by crisp, driving rhythms and marked articulation–perhaps sometimes to excess.

The four soloists and the chorus projected the English text into the large hall so skillfully that one rarely had to consult the printed text in the program.

Soloist Joélle Harvey wielded her bell-like soprano with utmost sensitivity and discretion.  One sensed considerable power in reserve as she tenderly shaped the phrases of such favorite arias as “Rejoice greatly” and “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”  Her leaps to pianissimo high notes were breathtaking.

Jennifer Johnson Cano’s sturdy mezzo-soprano voice was disadvantaged by the part’s mostly low tessitura, projecting less well into the large space than the other soloists. But she excelled in the raging passagework of “For he is like a refiner’s fire,” gave a dancing, flexible lilt to “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,” and shrouded “He was despised” in grief-stricken darkness.

Tenor Ben Bliss, making his subscription debut with the Philharmonic, got the evening’s singing off to a good start, interacting deliciously with the strings in “Comfort ye.”  He was a model of relaxed, assured singing—and the diction champion of the night—as his clear voice, woody at the core, curled easily around the phrases of “Ev’ry valley” and achieved trumpet-like intensity in “Thou shalt break them.”

Bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams started off strong with the recitative “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts,” his voice well-projected and backed by ringing resonance. But as the evening went on he seemed to encounter vocal problems, until by his taxing final aria, “The trumpet shall sound,” he was as much acting his part as singing it, woofing some high notes without regard to pitch.

Speaking of trumpets, Philharmonic principal Christopher Martin partnered the bass-baritone in that aria with a splendid trumpet obbligato, golden and fluent, if a little on the cool side emotionally.

Even with adjusted sonic expectations for this Baroque-style performance, the chorus, consisting of 56 (more or less) students from Westminster Choir College of Rider University, sounded a little underpowered at the outset, wasting energy on swaying with the music that could have gone into tone production. But they soon got a grip on themselves physically, and their tone projected better.

And a fine tone it was, clear and right on pitch in all sections. The altos sounded especially rich in choruses such as “And he shall purify,” the pure-toned sopranos were the whipped cream and cherry on top, and the men held up their end admirably as well. All dealt skillfully with Handel’s fast melismas, whipping through the sparkling sixteenth-notes of “For unto us a Child is born” with ease and accuracy despite Manze’s fast tempo.

The apparent ease with which the Philharmonic musicians figuratively set down their Richard Strauss bows and picked up their Handel ones was remarkable. Not just the slim, silvery tone, but the little swells on every note and the finicky variety of articulations from detached to smooth seemed to owe more to Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Christopher Hogwood than to Leonard Bernstein. Alert to Manze’s direction, the players sensed when to put a cushion under the singers and when to engage them in dialogue.

All of these fine stylistic points would have been just a classroom demonstration without a clear vision of this two-hour-long piece to pull it all into a single statement.  Fortunately, conductor Manze had vision in abundance.

His task was not easy, nor his burden light. The text by Charles Jennens is a miscellaneous assortment of biblical passages loosely organized around the subjects of Christ’s birth, his Passion and death, and theological musings on salvation, without a narrative to drive it (except briefly in the Passion section, allowing Handel to do a little of his matchless scene-painting in music).

The composer, however, assembled the musical settings with his impeccable sense of dramatic timing, and on Tuesday Manze made the most of every shift in mood, beginning in the far distance with a delicate opening Sinfonia and “Comfort ye”—perhaps another reason the opening chorus sounded a little dim—and steering the long and winding road to the climactic “Hallelujah!” of Part II.

Manze never overlooked an opportunity to highlight Handel’s musical metaphors, as in the stinging phrase “And with his stripes” followed by the buttery legato of “we are healed.”

With so much imagination at work, the oratorio’s two hours seemed to fly by.  At the end of the closing “Amen,” the audience stood and applauded, recognizing not just a holiday observance but an artistic triumph.

Messiah will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and 11 a.m. Friday.; 212-875-5656.


One Response to “Manze leads the Philharmonic and friends in a vivid, triumphant “Messiah””

  1. Posted Dec 13, 2017 at 5:53 pm by Cecelia Snow

    i’m in the choir! i sway because i internalize the music. i don’t know what “tone prudction” is, but singing is an honest expression of the natural voice in my body. much like yoga practice singing is a full body experience. open your mind to expressionism! we don’t all have to be standing still singing exactly the same like a boy choir, our individuality and the comfort to express it makes us a powerful ensemble, and i think it makes our performances more human.
    peace and love!

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