As apparently the only classical music fan with tattooed hands, I recently freaked everyone out at a Nov. 21 performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. As part of its 27th season, the Santa Fe Symphony & Chorus performed the piece at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.
Composed in just 24 days in 1741, Messiah is surely Handel’s most-celebrated work, though the piece didn’t enjoy much popularity until shortly before his death in 1759. At the time, the church considered opera too grand a spectacle to perform during Lent.
Instead, oratorios—stripped-down concert performances—such as Messiah were played. Many oratorios feature singing, but the scale is much smaller than opera and the pieces don’t employ lavish stage decoration or props. Though technically a concert piece, Messiah is still vocally operatic.
Drawing Messiah’s libretto (the piece’s words) from both Old and New Testament Bible verse, librettist Charles Jennens painted a picture of the Lord’s glory and Christ’s death and rebirth. Trading off choral verses with solos that represent vocal ranges from the deepest bass to the most ethereal soprano, Messiah is gorgeous. To hear such a piece when it was newly written would have been a religious experience.
These days, the piece is normally played during Advent (which began Nov. 28 this year), but the Santa Fe Symphony & Chorus moved it up a week with no hard feelings. I had to field some semi-terrified stares from concertgoers (read: elderly), but they were soon dissolved by the sheer power of the piece.
Guest conductor Tom Hall, on loan from the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, is a rock star who visibly took great joy leading Messiah. Giving the audience background on the piece moments prior to the first notes, Hall could barely contain his smile. Once the music began, he danced in rhythm while expertly directing each section of the brilliant orchestra. Even a malfunction with his music stand didn’t phase him; Hall merely smiled brightly toward the audience and readjusted his equipment.
Messiah is well-known for its four vocal soloists, and this performance’s top-notch professional singers—Soprano Martha Guth, mezzo-soprano Katherine Drago, tenor Jorge Prego and bass-baritone Stephen Morschek—treated Santa Fe to nothing but the best.
Prego kicked off the vocals with the libretto from Isaiah 40:1-3, beautifully wrapping his voice around the words and masterfully handling the vocal acrobatics. Those sitting nearby were hard-fought to contain applause for Prego’s vocal prowess until an appropriate juncture. Though momentarily flat, Drago’s vocals were moving all the same, and angelic once she reached the correct notes. Morschek represented my favorite part of the evening. His first solo from Isaiah 9:2 was almost sinister. In fact, it sounded downright metal. Given the power and emotion of Morschek’s booming bass, it was, in a word, gigantic. Throughout the show, Guth’s singing was nothing short of incredible. I detected a bit of smugness in her voice as if she were saying, “Man, I’m great.” Indeed she was, but it was unsettling for an amateur classical music fan such as me to have noticed that she thought so.
Admittedly, when the Bible verses struggle to fit with the music, Messiah’s libretto can seem clunky. However, the vocal duties were so beautifully shared, and the orchestra was so perfect at every turn that any shortcomings were effaced.
Looking around at the faces of my fellow concertgoers was astonishing: Everyone was either crying or in awe—including the dude with the snake tattoo on his hand.
Follow SFR music news on Twitter: @SFRsA_Sharp