It is hard to believe that the busiest night of the year for the professional singer, Christmas Eve, was just one week ago. It feels like at least a month, and the beginning of this "most wonderful time of the year" a distant memory, shrouded in mist.
Amy and I returned home in time for services at First Pres, VB, following memorable performances of Messiah at the beautifully restored Community Theater of Morristown, NJ on December 22, and the famed Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall on the 23rd.
The Masterwork Chorus and Orchestra (of NJ/NY) is renowned for its annual performances of this most famous of oratorios, and holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the number of complete Messiah performances. That's right, all three parts, and every single number between the opening Sinfonia and the closing "Amen" some three hours later. But what a swift three hours it was! We both agreed it was the most memorable and meaningful Messiah of which we had been a part. And that is no small compliment, given the variety and number of Messiah performances in which we have been involved.
Just as the accretion of single movements & constituent elements in a major work culminate in a power no single detail could muster, so do the varying performing forces contribute to a whole greater than the sum of any individual voice, part, or section. Put another way, there was not a "weak link" in these performances of this most sprawling of masterworks. For starters, the conductor, Andrew Megill, is one of the finest musicians of his generation, a baroque specialist, and a conductor of emotional and dramatic intensity. One telling detail is how much the players not only respond to his conducting, but how much they enjoy playing for him. Anyone in the music business knows so-called "choral" conductors are among the most resented of maestros by orchestras. One of the reasons for this is the frequent lack of stick technique which can make choral conductors more difficult to follow. Anyone who's watched a church choir director making circles with his arms has witnessed this. Combine that with a lack of expertise and experience where both the individual instruments and the inner workings of the sections are concerned and an orchestra's frustrations are completely understandable.
Andrew's conducting is not "conventional" from a purely technical standpoint, as he forgoes a baton and often abandons the standard beat pattern in order to express a dramatic or musical idea. He is not marking time as much as he is evoking the musical--and affective--gesture. And such expressiveness, such direct engagement with the music, text, and narrative is compelling and inspiring, and results in a performance reflecting those qualities.
Though playing on modern instruments, the Masterwork players are baroque specialists, "get" the style and play with extraordinary sensitivity and expressiveness. To cite one example among many, in the famous aria "The Trumpet Shall Sound" the solo trumpet not only embellished repeating phrases with ornaments, but the violins--en masse--followed suit. One doesn't hear a modern orchestra take such risks--such "in the moment" spontaneity is usually the purview of chamber groups and period orchestras, comprised of specialists who play little else but 18th century music. It was the kind of performance that sent chills down the spines of the musical nerds attentive to such telling details.
The chorus sounded anything but amateur, and were especially effective in simply telling the story. Technically polished, they sang with a full palette of dynamic range--the hushed opening of "Since by man came death" was sit-up-and-pay-attention good, a worthy partner to the quiet intensity which framed the opening section of the 2nd part ("...the iniquity of us all"). The 85 voice avocational chorus executed the brisk tempos of "All we like sheep" and "Let us break their bond" with professional accomplishment.
The quartet was exceptionally well received (I consider myself privileged to be in such esteemed company). Much of the soloists' impact can be attributed to Mo. Megill's inspiring leadership. He challenged all of us to engage with the text and the musical ideas with imagination and a refreshing newness. It is another tribute to his gifts that after leading dozens and dozens of performances (of such an ubiquitously familiar work) he brings such creativity to every outing.
He assigned "But who may abide" to the soprano, and with no disrespect to my alto, counter-tenor, and baritone colleagues, I never want to hear another voice essay it. As Andrew said, the soprano is the only voice that can really sound like fire. And Amy's facile, lightning-quick coloratura evoked the "refiner's fire," as did her stratospheric cadenza (which I humbly take pride in suggesting). It climaxes on a high d, and wakes up any remaining Rip Van Winkles in the house! Another welcome change was offering the 12/8 "Rejoice Greatly" (the standard version is in 4/4). Though skeptical at first, I am now a convert to this version. Besides the fact the jaunty and lilting triplet figures sound like what the text means, the compound meter balances the earlier alto aria, "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion." Both arias have the same textual affect (ie: joy), and this parallel is only reinforced by singing "Rejoice" in a similar meter.
The mezzo, Patricia Thompson, was as bold and engaging as any I'd heard in this work. Unafraid to use her chest voice as an expressive instrument, her "He was despised" took no prisoners. The longest aria in the oratorio can either be a highlight or a low-point. It was clearly the former, and Patricia's ability to enact--rather than express--emotion with her voice forced one to pay attention. She was a worthy successor to Susanna Cibber, who premiered the role in 1742. It was Cibber's return to the stage following a very public scandal in which she was disgraced and humiliated. Imagine making one's comeback from such notoriety with the aria "He was despised and rejected of men." One anecdote relates that a priest from Dublin's St Patrick's Cathedral declared "woman, thy sins are forgiven" following her performance of the aria!
My friend, Richard Lippold, was outstanding, and sounded better than I'd ever heard him (though we realized we'd mostly sung together as pro choristers). Though a lyric baritone, his engagement with the character of each of his arias made me forget he doesn't have a Sam Ramey-like low range. His coloratura rivaled Amy's, which is no mean feat, either. "Why do the nations rage" was as exciting as it should be, and that Richard inspired the superb trumpet of Terry Szor is testimony enough of his technique and expressiveness.
For those inquiring minds, everyone in both theaters stood for the "Hallelujah" chorus. We don't really know how this tradition came to be (the veracity of the anecdotes relating to King George standing are tenuous at best, as we don't really know whether or not he attended a performance of Messiah). We do know that there was a tradition of standing for any number of Handel's choruses. Indeed a letter from the 1750's attests to the fact that the "socialites" (and Christians) knew when to stand for which choruses, while the "unwashed" remained ignorantly seated.
Both audiences stood again at the conclusion of the oratorio, and we left both stages feeling as appreciated as we ourselves felt grateful to have been part of so meaningful an experience.
I would be remiss if I did not mention an unexpected and most pleasant surprise which contributed much to the meaningfulness of the experience. We were the happy and lucky guests of Laura DeFelice (a soprano in the chorus) and her husband, Mike Capatides. Their villa of a home, Acacia, was our refuge for the 10 days we were in town. We enjoyed not only their company, but that of their fantastic boys, Gus (12) and Max (almost 5). Their oh-so-chill retriever, Fred, kittens, Co-Co and Tiger, and trio of turtles (led by Kim Mr. Kim) made the mansion feel like a real home for us. And if that weren't enough, we were the fortunate beneficiaries of their copious wine collection, housed in their large wine vault, appropriately called the Capalice cellar.
We both have been blessed to make lasting friends literally all over the world from our travels and stays. There are times where nothing beats a nice hotel room and the chance to be quiet and anonymous for a few nights. In this case, we couldn't have been more grateful to stay with Laura and Mike, and we know our new friendship with them will continue into 2010 and beyond.
It was a fitting book-end to a very eventful year of music and art. In no particular order, 2009 brought a bevy of performances around Virginia, from the Beach to Williamsburg to Lexington and Roanoke, up and down the East Coast from church services in Florida to recitals in the DC area, concerts in Pennsylvania, NJ & NY, and a memorable few weeks at the Bard Festival in upstate NY. Amy performed with the Kalamazoo Symphony and I sang Britten with the Maryland Symphony, and we travelled around the Mediterranean, singing recitals in Croatia, Italy and France. It is fitting that immediately prior to the Holiday concert craze (16 concerts in the first 3 weeks of December!) we took a quick trip to Dublin, and among many other treats, sat for a second in the chair from which Handel conducted the premiere of Messiah.
Quite a year 2009 has been. It gives me pause to give thanks to friends, old & new, family, colleagues, and acquaintances.
This morning my eye caught an apt verse from the letter of James:
"...yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes."
Though the many memories of this eventful year may fade, I doubt they will vanish. And I will be grateful for however many number of tomorrows 2010 may bring.