Festivities and farewells at the NZSO’s Messiah

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

Handel – Messiah

Anna Leese (soprano) / Russell Harcourt (counter-tenor)

James Egglestone (tenor) / Teddy Tahu Rhodes (bass)

Orpheus Choir of Wellington

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Richard Gill (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 14th December 2013

A woman said to me as we were walking together out of the hall after Saturday evening’s  “Messiah” performance by the Orpheus Choir and the NZSO players, “You know, I NEVER get tired of it!” And judging by the work’s popularity and its ability to draw full houses year after year, it’s a sentiment shared by a lot of concertgoers.

Of course, there are a number of reasons for Messiah’s perennial popularity – firstly, it’s  one of those works whose greatness can’t seem to help but shine forth from every individual recitative, aria, chorus and instrumental interaction. Running hand-in-glove with this is the music’s sheer, direct appeal – whoever decreed that the greatest music ought to be fraught with difficulties, complexities and obscurities for the listener obviously forgot to tell Messiah-lovers.

One of the x-factor qualities which keep Messiah is that there are seemingly endless performance variables – because Handel himself could never settle on a “final version” of the work, there exist different performing editions deriving from different premieres. Then there’s more-or-less constant discussion between musicologists and performers regarding “how” the work ought to be interpreted. And there’s the built-in circumstance of every performance being different in any case, given that no two singers will put across the notes the same way, nor will any two conductors produce interpretations that sound like one another.

It all adds up to something that seems to have built-in renewability – had I but world enough and time I would have talked with a dozen people after the performance and explored a variety of ideas and feelings as to Messiah’s enduring popularity and appeal. In this respect I think it’s unique among choral works – perhaps only the Verdi Requiem could claim to enjoy anything like the same level of popularity.

Saturday evening’s “Messiah” certainly had a number of memorable features which readily contributed to the occasion’s unique quality. Right at the beginning of the concert, the orchestra leader Vesa-Matti Leppanen took up a microphone upon making his entrance, and paid a glowing and heartfelt tribute to the orchestra’s Double-Bass Section Principal, Hiroshi Ikematsu, whose final concert it was with the orchestra that evening.

Most interestingly, Vesa-Matti spoke about the relationship of the double-basses to the rest of the orchestral strings, assuring us that sound-wise, it was really Hiroshi’s double-bass which “led” the orchestra, and not the Concertmaster’s violin. It was obvious that such an inspirational and vibrant player and leader, returning to Japan, his home country, to live, will be sorely missed by the orchestra.

The conductor was Richard Gill, whom I had encountered a couple of years ago as conductor of the orchestra in a couple of lecture-demonstrations of various pieces of music  (I remembered well the evening devoted to Dvorak’s New World Symphony). He gave us music-making whose tones leapt from the pages which was bright, alert and alive. His tempi were generally swift and his phrasings with both singers and instrumentalists were detailed and spontaneous-sounding. I didn’t agree with everything he did – in places I thought his disavowal of any rhetoric a bit severe (the opening tenor solo, for example, which was very matter-of-fact), and the choir’s enunciation of the words a bit TOO clipped –  in the phrase “Unto Us” for example, from “For Unto Us a child is born” – and I thought his tempo simply too fast for “He was Despised” – a reading which divested the music of much of its sorrowful feeling, so that the result was a bit of a dry-eyed exercise. A pity, too, he left out the middle section and the reprise of “The Trumpet Shall Sound” – though from the singer’s and instrumentalist’s point of view it was possibly a welcomed excision. And were my ears deceiving me, or did he make a small cut in the  penultimate chorus “Worthy is the Lamb”, just before the re-entry of the timpani and brass towards the end?

These things were all outweighed, however, by the positive aspects of his direction – clear, strong, energetic instrumental and choral lines, encouragement of expression and sharpness of focus in the singing, real and vivid characterization of some of the sequences. I especially liked the choral attack in places like the opening of “Surely he hath borne our griefs” – the Orpheus Choir sounded right onto it, giving the music both power and glint, the sopranos especially a delight all the way through. Another highlight of his direction was the setting of certain instrumental passage for solo instruments , which gave the music a quiet intensity, an intimate quality – an example of this was in “I know my Redeemer liveth” which seemed to have an extra immediacy when accompanied by those solo string lines. Again, during the Amen chorus, the single strings sounded wonderful and made a great contrast with the tumult of the choir’s contrasting “Amens”. Things like this gave his music-making real distinction and individuality without any sense that I could discern of trying to be different just for its own sake.

The soloists also gave great distinction to the evening, especially the two home-grown voices, Anna Leese, soprano, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes, bass, both of whom really commanded and filled out what they sang. A more gentle and tremulous impression was made by both the tenor James Eggleston and counter-tenor Russell Harcourt. Russell Harcourt had a sweet, more feminine voice than one sometimes gets with counter-tenors, who can often be a bit “hooty”.

Tenor James Eggleston managed to blend heroic and poetical tones at the beginning of his opening recitative “Comfort Ye” – but I though his runs throughout “Ev’ry valley” were a bit short-winded in places, not quite free and liberated enough. However he interacted well with the chorus throughout the sequence describing Christ’s being mocked and humbled by the spectators and soldiers, beginning with the sequence “All they that see him laugh him to scorn” – and the chorus work was again terrific and vivid and engaging.

Though I felt Anna Leese wasn’t entirely comfortable with the longer coloratura runs in places, such as during “Rejoice Greatly”, the more lyrical and declamatory parts of her solos simply took wing throughout the evening, and her voice filled the hall so magnificently. I thought she had a number of particularly striking moments, generated by her resplendent vocal-quality – firstly, her describing the Shepherds in the fields watching over their flocks before they were astonished and made afraid by the appearance of the angel and the heavenly hosts; and secondly, her radiantly taking over the solo line from the counter-tenor in “He shall feed his flock”. But the highlight was, for me, her singing of “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, accompanied so enchantingly by solo violin and ‘cello. And where she began the aria’s second sequence “And though worms destroy this body”, her voice seemed to go into some kind of transcendental realm of vocal ecstasy, to the point where it actually gave me goosebumps listening to her!

The other singer to make an enormous impression, and not just through dint of his physical presence, was bass Teddy Tahu Rhodes. From the outset he seemed right into the world of the music, putting the words across with tremendous power and focus. In fact, of all the solo singers he seemed the most confident and commanding in delivering both a strong, yet flexible vocal line. The bass arias from Messiah are all so distinctive and characterful in themselves, in any case, but he wasn’t content to simply leave things at that – every individual item was delivered with great “ownership” and thrilling surety. With such singing and playing as we enjoyed here, it was a pity we didn’t get the whole of the aria “The trumpet shall sound”, which of course, in its entirety, with a contrasting middle section and a reprise of the opening, is both a gift and a real “ask” for both singer and instrumentalist.   But what we got was so splendid as to make us truly grateful. Cheryl Hollinger’s trumpet-playing was gleaming and golden throughout, and in tandem with the singer made a stunning impression.

It all added up to a performance of considerable distinction, one by no means perfect (is there any such thing as a perfect performance of this masterpiece?) but always with something individual and exciting to say. The audience “buzz” at the concert’s end was ample testimony to what these musicians had achieved – the NZSO ought to feel well pleased with its bringing together these talents for our great delight! Joyeux Noël to all!

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