Monday, December 4, 2017

Handel's Messiah

Early Music Vancouver presented, incredibly, for the first time Handel’s perennially popular Messiah this weekend. I attended one of four performances of the oratorio, and found the performance both musically satisfying and spiritually uplifting.

For their presentation, EMV had assembled a strong cast consisting of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, Vancouver Cantata Singers (under Paula Kremer), soprano Yulia Van Doren, Mezzo-Soprano Krisztina Szabó, Tenor Charles Daniels, and Vancouver’s own Baritone Tyler Duncan, under the direction of Alexander Weimann, who also played the harpsichord.

All four soloists for the performance are outstanding artists. Vocally Van Doren was the strongest of the four, and her singing of many of the florid vocal lines had an effortless quality as well as a palpable feeling of joyfulness.  This was particularly evident in her exhilarating performance of the aria, “Rejoice greatly”. As well, her performance of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” had a simplicity of feeling and a naturalness in delivery. Also memorable was Szabó’s deeply felt singing of the alto aria, “He was despised and rejected”.

To my ears, the soloists all meant what they were singing. Tenor Daniels, in particular, made every word he sang charged with meaning. I felt this especially in the many accompanied recitatives, recitatives, arioso (“Behold, and see if there be any sorrow”) in Part II of the oratorio. In “Why do the nations so furiously rage together”, Duncan delivered the aria with incredible power and dizzying vocal prowess as well as a palpable sense of urgency, and I could not help but feel that the words of the aria are particularly apt for our times.

Kudos to Paula Kremer and the Vancouver Cantata Singers for their always beautifully nuanced, textually clear, and always musical singing really made them one of the evening’s highlights. In some of the choruses, Alexander Weimann set tempi for the singers that are challenging to sing. The choir more than rose to the occasion in the dizzying speed, agility, accuracy, and lightness of their singing. In choruses such as “For unto us a child is born” and “All we like sheep”, there was an incredible feeling of excitement and exhilaration.  In “Surely, He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”, the choristers infused the music and the words with an incredible intensity of feeling.

The Pacific Baroque Orchestra has been a cornerstone of Vancouver’s early music scene. Concertmaster Chloe Meyers played with great confidence and beautiful articulation. I particularly enjoyed her playing of the striking violin figures in “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron”.

It was quite a sight to watch conductor and harpsichordist Alexander Weimann in action, sometimes standing or half sitting while playing, keeping all of the performing forces together. The ensemble was impeccable, the coordination between orchestra and singers was always at one with each other, and it was a reading that was intensely beautiful and musical. In the final “Amen”, Handel’s genius and the talent and hard work of the musicians all came together to conclude this incredible evening with a final benediction. For me, it was a performance that very much moved.

It is probably safe to say that we live in a post-Christian age. Yet, year after year, people flock to performances of Handel’s Messiah, and recordings of the oratorio continue to be made and are sold. On top of the emotional association every December of doing “something Christmassy” – and Handel’s Messiah certainly beats another performance of Nutcracker - could it be that we, even when we want to deny it, are in search of something transcendent? Surely when we hear those beautiful and inspired (by the Holy Spirit no less) words being sung, we could not help but be moved?  In the words of Saint Augustine, all of us are “wired” for God, and nothing in our world would ever be able to finally satisfy us  - “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”.

Perhaps we are, all of us, no matter how much we protest otherwise, in search of an “invasion of grace” into our lives.

Patrick May
December 4, 2017

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