With the many performances of Handel’s “Messiah” around the world, each of them have a unique quality all of their own. From the small church choir to the professional choir, these performances all provide their own fabric to the tapestry of a masterwork that has touched the hearts of many for centuries. The presentation at the Washington National Cathedral was a perfect example of the variation in performance that still exist, even for a venerable work such as Handel’s most famous oratorio. Listeners filled the entire cathedral to hear the beloved choral piece that for many mark the beginning of the Christmas season.
Michael McCarthy led a performance that was a fine balance between being “period informed” yet still palpable to the ear of a listener who may not be astute to baroque performance practice. Opening with the overture, McCarthy conducted in a stately tempo, bringing out the dotted rhythms of the movement, which is in the manner of the French overture. The orchestra played with a great sense of ensemble, with each phrase not only being heard, but seen also in the embachur. Boy and girl sopranos in the choir framed the work with an angelic quality throughout, further noting the clarity and sheer beauty of the singers. Adult men composed of countertenors, tenors and basses blended uniformly with the upper voices. Notably, the countertenors of the choir sang with a beautiful legato that was often at the center of the core choral sound.
In Comfort Ye, tenor Rufus Müller masterfully set the tone for the subject matter at hand, singing with a great sense of conviction and urgency. His vocal ornaments were always with reason, noted particularly on the word “straight” in which he removed the vibrato and on the word “rough” where he added an ornament in the manner of a succession of notes, that conveyed the idea effectively.
In Thus Saith the Lord, bass Eric Downs’ rendering was emphatic, yet the vocal production lacked a resonance that was well-focused. Downs championed Why Do the Nations, displaying a great flexibility in his vocal range, and a pleasing lower register. Mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson sang with a vocal warmth that has inevitably become her trademark. In the aria O Thou That Tellest, she brought a jubilance to the work that was matched by the McCarthy’s lilting tempo.
Soprano Gillian Keith complimented the performance with a radiant vocal presence. Her emphatic delivery embodied the joy that was apparent for such an important announcement. Rejoice Greatly was a brilliant showpiece for the soprano.
There were many interesting things about this performance. The tempos were quite brisk. In the joyful choruses such as O Thou That Tellest and For Unto Us, the faster pace was conceivable. But in the mood change of the choruses that were appropriate more so to the suffering and death of Christ such as Behold the Lamb of God and Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs, deliberately slower tempos may have assisted in providing a more recognizable mood change from the previous joyfulness of the oratorio.
A grand space, angelic choristers, stellar soloists, fine orchestra and a musical conductor ushered in the holiday season, in what has become one of Washington’s beloved holiday traditions.
Patrick D. McCoy is an arts columnist and musician residing in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. His online column can be read at examiner.com/kennedy-center-in-washington-dc/patrick-mccoy.