Saturday, December 21, 2013

New York Philharmonic gives Handel's Messiah fresh sound with youthful voices

British Guest Conductor Andrew Manze gives new vitality to time-worn Holiday classic

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere December 20, 2013
Guest Conductor Andrew Manze
Westminster Symphonic Choir
Soprano Joelle Harvey
Bass Matthew Rose
Below: Mezzo-Soprano Tamara Mumford

NEW YORK--When George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" had its London premiere at Covent Garden in 1743, critics considered it scandalous that a musical work based on scripture would be performed in such a secular setting and not in a church. In those days, it was an Easter tradition. Now, some 270 years later, his oratory is performed at Christmastime in churches, concert halls, high school auditoriums and at venues normally associated with rock concerts and commercial theatre. "Messiah" has become a fixture of the Holiday season with just as many "sing-it-yourself" and  "best hits of" performances as there are full symphonic presentations, such as the one offered this week by the New York Philharmonic, with guest conductor Andrew Manze in his Philharmonic debut. 

Manze, the British violinist and soon-to-be principal conductor of Hanover, Germany's NDR Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, looked at this ubiquitous work with a fresh eye. He brought with him the quicksilver voices of the Westminster Symphonic choir at Rider University's College of the Arts in Princeton, New Jersey, and a Marvel Team of singing superheroes in the solo parts to help him realize his vision.

From the outset, it was crystal clear that this was not going to be your maiden aunt's rendition of Handel's Messiah. Manze began the work by outlining carefully paced measures in the Sinfonia Overture that allowed the opening themes plenty of breathing room to sink in and lay the groundwork for the massive musical journey ahead. Not simply glorifying the birth of Christ, as predicted in early scripture, which provided the text for Part I,  Handel's oratory then proceeded through his suffering and martyrdom at the Cross, on to his  Resurrection and the eventual resurrection of  all Mankind. It was stirring stuff indeed, which made it abundantly clear why King George II and the London premiere audience were moved to stand during the reading of the Hallelujah Chorus at Covent Garden Theatre, thus sparking a tradition that remains to this day.

British tenor Allan Clayton set the oratorial wheels in motion with his dramatic vocal rendering  of the opening recitative "Comfort ye, my people." Later, his fellow Brit, bass Matthew Rose let loose with a stentorian aria, "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?"  that shook the rafters. If there were anyone dozing in the front rows, or whose mind had drifted off to thoughts of the day's Christmas shopping in Herald Square, they were quickly shaken back to reality and the urgent musical business at hand.

Soprano Joelle Harvey was herself angelic in her lilting rendition of Luke II: "And the angel said unto them, Fear not; behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy."

The ravishingly beautiful mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, in her New York Philharmonic subscription debut, lent an air of mystery to the Air "He was despised," which was so aptly suited to her rich,  soulful voice.

Yet another errant cell phone threatened to burst the mystic spell of music in Avery Fisher Hall.  Thankfully, it was a least tuned to a classically-tinged musical ring-tone, which was quickly, and mercifully,  extinguished. Perhaps it will take more than Alec Baldwin's soothing recorded voice at the outset of each concert to quell the cell phone stampede that threatens to ruin every concert there. Maybe he needs to show up in the flesh in full anti-papparazzi mode!

Guest conductor Manze is to be commended for his skill at navigating Handel's massive and ambitious score, which, in other hands, could have proven unwieldy and unfocused. He allowed the inner voices to develop in the symphonic interludes, emphasizing some lovely and insightful passages in the cello and bass sections. Even the on stage organ and harpsichord could be heard over the orchestral swell at key moments.  Matthew Muckey's burnished trumpet melded perfectly with bass Matthew Rose's stern reading of the Air "The trumpet shall sound."

Manze's approach to the Hallelujah Chorus was the most refreshing of any I have heard. Rather than letting the choir and orchestra proceed full speed ahead as is done in so many performances, he allowed the suspense to build, with careful layering of the counterpoint and fugue written for the voices and orchestra, creating an engaging tapestry of sound. He preceded the finale with a brief, but dramatic pause, allowing thundering notes from the timpani to highlight its stirring climax.  "Bravos!"  emitted by members of the audience were richly deserved.

Handel's Messiah repeats in performance Saturday, December 21, at 7:30 pm. If you've already heard the Messiah elsewhere, rest assured, you've never heard it with such clarity and authority as performed by the New York Philharmonic. For tickets and information, visit
Below: Tenor Allan Clayton

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