Handel’s Messiah has been a personal favorite for a long time. At any time of year, I have no trepidation giving up two and half hours of my life to experience the wondrous sound and spiritual world that Handel created. Needless to say, when Baroque Band announced the ambitious plan to perform this masterpiece with the ensemble’s customary intimacy in Symphony Center’s Grainger Ballroom I was thrilled. I looked forward to it despite having bad experiences in the past with live performance of the work. Several years ago, I attended a performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Schreier, in which he excised several numbers from both Parts II and III to reduce the amount of time it took to perform the piece to within union stipulations. I was not pleased. That would certainly not be the case here. Baroque Band is a small group of devoted musicians. They would never cherry pick Messiah to make it fit. Alas, on Wednesday, they did, this time I presume to make the music fit the space rental agreement. Despite this, director Garry Clarke, along with his committed group of players, together with members of the Chicago Chorale and able soloists, was able to put together a performance of the work that was so intimate, I felt it was a command performance just for me.
I sat front and center in the first row, giving me an unobstructed view of all the goings-on about five feet in front of me. With two strings per part, there was no room for hiding. There seemed to be some tuning issues at the outset but those were resolved by the endless playing of the instruments. The violins seemed to have not a single second of rest throughout the entire performance. The next thing you notice is the sheer speed of the performance. Clarke was intent on creating a great deal of forward momentum in this traversal of the Dublin 1742 version. I responded favorably at first to that decision, the speed creating a heightened sense of drama to the first part, in anticipation of the birth of Jesus. Then again, the consistent choice to speed through it left little room for the more contemplative sections to breathe. Being consistently up-tempo can be just as monotonous as consistently ponderous. That hurried approach affected every aspect of their performance, from how quickly the arms of the violinists were flailing to how much sweat was breaking forth from the choristers’ brows as they made their way through the virtuoso runs in several of Handel’s choruses.
The chorus consisted of sixteen members, four to a section, and they performed wonderfully, given the circumstance. Because of the tempo, most of the singing was staccato to add more clarity to what was being sung. There was little time for legato and vibrato, which makes for an interesting contrast to most current recordings that allow for more faceting of the text. Having all the choruses sound that way made the chorus’s contribution mechanical at times.
The contributions of the soloists were mixed as well. Tenor Trevor L. Mitchell performed his arias adequately, as if the only requirement was being able to sing the notes. His voice did not suit me, having been brought up on Messiah recordings of tenor legends like Philip Langridge, Mark Padmore and John Aler. The decision to use countertenor for the alto role also produced variable results. Most of the content of that role involves deeply felt text, more ably conveyed by an alto than a vocally restrained countertenor. Chris Conely, a young countertenor with a rather wobbly vibrato, seemed more suited to coloratura work of Handel operas than this oratorio. I missed the sense of deep drama that is a part of this role, given short shrift by the speed of the performance and the singer’s lack of expressivity. Such was not the case for soprano Amy Conn and Bass Benjamin LeClair. Ms. Conn brought a tremendous amount of dramatic emphasis to her selections, as well as providing a smooth and convincing voice. Her turn as the herald of Christ’s birth could not have been more contrasted to her scena work in Part II. She took the time to make her selections count and it paid off. Like Ms. Conn, Benjamin LeClair had a voice that seemed to flow effortlessly from him. He was an imposing bass, standing at about 6′ 6” with probable size 15 shoes. The role was hardly a challenge for him. I always had the impression that his voice was more cavernous than was summoned by the role. It gave the impression of complete mastery of the material, and it was clearly in evidence during the performance.
To meet time constraints, which included the intermission, the second and third parts of the oratorio were cut mercilessly. I recognize that Mr. Handel changed the piece at practically every performance, accommodating singers and performance capabilities, but modern audiences have come to accept a certain flow of musical numbers. It was disconcerting to have so many selections removed, including the repeats of the powerful arias He was despised and The trumpet shall sound. The end impression was one of decidedly secular motivations. The actual words that were being sung didn’t seem to factor into the style of performance put on by Garry Clarke. It seemed to be an oratorio cobbled together of catchy tunes that flew by in quick succession, without a moment’s reflection. That was disappointing, but all this could not detract from the sheer joy of being able to sit and hear a performance of this great work in such an intimate space with almost no barrier between the modest audience and the modest performance forces. Although there were many qualms to be had with what was presented, I have no qualms with ambitions of the Baroque Band and their continued quest to expand their repertoire. I just wished sometimes that they focused more on their interpretation of what they perform than simply being able to perform it.