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NY Phil’s Messiah

December 17, 2009

Oh, hello, friends. Here I am. Sorry for the hiatus. It’s been hella crazy lately. Such is the awesomeness that is the period of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Looking for a little bit of grace to get me through.

I may have found a bit last night. I bought a 3-concert subscription to the New York Philharmonic a few months ago. The sales rep was very persistent, and I just couldn’t say “no” to him for some reason. I was actually super impressed with his method of not getting perturbed when my husband told him I wasn’t available, then asking when would be a good time to call back, and then actually calling back at the arranged time. I have to deal with so much nonsense and unresponsiveness that I guess I was kind of moved by his dedication and trustworthiness. I hope he made a few bucks off me.

So last night happened to be my first concert. When I purchased the ticket, I figured Wednesday night would be a fine time to go hear Handel’s Messiah. But the struggles of getting anything done this past week made me almost annoyed that I had to go to the orchestra. Shamed by this realization of feeling resentful for having the opportunity to go to a pretty building and listen to pretty music for 2 hours, I decided this was probably exactly what I needed to do last night. That’s the good thing about buying tickets so far in advance. They force you to use them when you would otherwise probably just keep putting your head down, grinding out work, and not enjoying a bit of the outside world.

I had mixed feelings about even going to hear the Messiah, but I chose it because it was in the price bracket I could afford, and it had solo vocalists on the program. Messiah is a work that I have attempted to learn sporadically over the past 5 years, but I have always resisted completely conquering the music because of this feeling that I was only doing it because of the potential paycheck. I’m not sure I really love the work. It’s an important work because it’s lasted and it’s commonly performed. But is it done too often? Is it really so great, or merely catchy and popular? (And is that such a bad thing? After all, I’m a huge fan of Mozart in general, and his Requiem, which is also one of those “masterworks” that is programmed incessantly by anyone with a baton.)

I’ll be the first one to admit I don’t know much about orchestral music. I’m not such a fan of symphonies and such. They are pretty background music, but my passion is singing, so that’s what I prefer to listen to in a critical sense, with my full attention. But one of the first things I noticed and appreciated about last night’s performance was the pared-down ensemble. There was nothing bloated or blasty or trumped-up about the ensemble. It was lean and tidy and fit comfortably on the stage.

The actual first thing I noticed was that the alto soloist was a countertenor. I have heard a few countertenors, and there are some good ones and bad ones, and sometimes it comes off as a mere novelty, and sometimes it’s a really effective choice.

The conductor was Helmuth Rilling, who is the most adorable little man. I wanted to pick him up and put him in my pocket, and yes, I know that sounds condescending or whatever. I don’t know how old he is, but he’s got some years behind him. He looked so tiny from my third-tier box, but he was up there waving his arms around and seemingly having a wonderful time.

I was sort of expecting a 3-hour adventure, since the last time I sat through a Messiah was the first and only time I sang in a chorus performing it, and it was an excruciatingly long concert. However, the program indicated it would only be 2 hours plus intermission. The soloists were Annette Dasch, soprano; Daniel Taylor, countertenor; James Taylor, tenor (hee); and Shenyang, bass. The Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart sang the choral part.

The chorus was excellent, though I think achieving the pure, vibrato-less tones would be hard on the voice. They had fairly clear diction, were very precise in even the fastest passages (“All we like sheep” was particularly impressive), and their intonation was spot-on. It all sounded effortless and reminded me what good choral music can sound like. There is such fun in creating harmony with other voices and a comparatively large sound to solo singing.

I was interested in hearing what these soloists would do with this famous work, in this famous hall. The more I sing for money, the more I realize that it’s a job. Yet, as I improve, I also get closer to some artistic utopia, constantly striving for higher standards. I long for connection: to move and be moved.

Oratorio singing is some of the hardest singing you can do. Like a recital, you are naked on stage with your voice. There are no lights, costumes, or sets to hide behind, dive into, and relish. There is just the music and the performers.

I know live performance is imperfect. But in this age of high-quality recordings and pitch-correction, we are taught to expect perfection, particularly at a well-respected venue like Lincoln Center. Hell, I walked onto the plaza, and I felt like Cher in Moonstruck, so storied and majestic is that place. The fountain is burbling. The building tower over you. You get to the top floor and look out a wall of plate glass to see so much sprawling space full of nothing, unheard of on this tiny island city. It feels like an event just to be standing there, so when you actually sit down to listen, you want the music to live up to its surroundings.

The tenor was a bit reedy, but expressive. His tone was pleasant, but unremarkable. The bass won Cardiff in 2007, so I expected he would be quite good. He is training at The Juilliard School Opera Center and the Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. He goes by one name, which is a little weird and pop-singer-y, but he sounded great, so I guess he can do what he wants. There were a few weird diction issues, where I thought I could tell that English is still foreign in his mouth, and occasionally I felt that his performance betrayed his age. But overall, he was a pleasure to hear.

The countertenor was too soft in some spots, perhaps a voice meant for chamber works in a slightly smaller hall, but he sang beautifully. “He was despised” was probably the highlight of the evening. His phrasing was so expressive, and his voice, while it definitely had a lighter, pure falsetto quality, was solid throughout its range and smooth. He did make some quirky head jerks during his first aria, but he was actually pretty captivating. He had most of the music memorized, and only held his book seemingly out of habit. It was delightful.

The soprano, on the other hand, was quite the disappointment. I did not care for her performance. There were perhaps two phrases at the end of “I know that my redeemer liveth” that were lovely, but mostly I was waiting for her pieces to be over. I really wanted her to be good, but I left unsatisfied and baffled how she was able to land that gig. She is singing the Countess in Figaro at the Met and is apparently rather “acclaimed” in the opera world right now, but I fail to see what the fuss is about. It seemed like she was uncomfortable and trying too hard. Perhaps she’s not used to oratorio singing, or maybe Handel’s just not for her. Her voice seemed tight and held in. She was the only one who seemed to need to drink water on stage, and at one point she actually touched her throat when she sat down. I wondered if it was bad technique or nerves or the wrong repertoire. She was out of tune in a lot of places. She ornamented too much. It was overdone. I’d rather hear simple ornaments sung in tune than fancy, irrelevant filigree painfully out of tune. Sometimes she ornamented the first time through the “A” section, which meant the ornaments had to get even more complex the second time around. Sometimes I doubt my ears when assessing other singers because I don’t think I’m an expert. I don’t adjudicate regularly, or teach. And at a place like Lincoln Center, I feel sheepish criticizing the quality. Isn’t that what these institutions are supposed to provide – some kind of quality control? But I know what I like, and that was not it.

I did appreciate the reminder of what a real acoustic performance sounds like in a big hall. I could hear almost every note from each singer, and I was in the third tier. At no point was it overwhelmingly or impressively loud, but it was nearly always beautiful. The voice is an amazing instrument.

So am I feeling more in the Christmas spirit? A little. We still have deadlines and too many clients and too much work, and no time to shop, and lot of masses to sing before I can rest, but I did feel a little better when I walked out. And I give them credit. Despite the failings of Ms. Dasch I walked out humming, having thoroughly enjoyed the big, over-performed masterwork.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2009 4:28 pm

    It’s wonderful to see you salving your soul with music like this, Betsy. And good to have you posting again.

  2. Julia Bates permalink
    December 20, 2009 4:53 pm

    I think hearing an old familiar done well is so comforting–like a ritual that reassures us that this piece has survived and so will we. Plus preserving the art form is another reason to make sure we all survive as a culture. Maybe the soprano had a cold?

    All the best in your holiday singing! Look forward to seeing you in the new year! Julia

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