Taking place on June 18th in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre, the final concert of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-2019 Vocal Series was a performance of G.F.Handel’s “Messiah”. Guest conductor Nicholas McGegan (UK) directed the performance, in which the Shahar Choir (conductor: Gila Brill), the Adi Choir (conductor: Oded Shomrony) and the Jerusalem Oratorio Capellate Choir (conductor: Naama Nazrathy) joined to form one choral body for the event. Soloists, under the auspices of the Israeli Opera, were soprano Tal Ganor, countertenor Alon Harari, baritone Oded Reich and Irish-born tenor Robin Tritschler, making his JSO- and Israeli opera debut.

Handel wrote the original version of “Messiah” in three to four weeks. Premiered in Dublin in 1742, with the composer now already established in London, the work drew such a large crowd that audience members were requested to leave their hoop skirts and swords at home for fear of overcrowding at the concert hall. In his libretto, Charles Jennens interspersed texts from both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament, frequently using a metaphor — rarely narrative -  to depict the story of the Messiah.  Although the oratorio is primarily contemplative, with no speaking characters and hardly any action, it falls into three parts: Part One deals first with the prophecies concerning Christ’s birth. Part Two, the dramatic pinnacle of the work, tells of Christ’s passion, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, with Part Three consisting entirely of commentary, principally on the resurrection and the theme of Christian redemption.

No new face in Jerusalem, Nicholas McGegan has conducted the JSO in several productions of Handel works. From the very opening sounds of the Overture at this performance, one is acutely aware of Maestro McGegan’s eloquent, finely chiseled approach to Baroque music and to Handel’s masterful instrumental score (here achieved, nevertheless, on modern instruments), uniquely reflecting the rhythmic quality and detailed dynamics of the speech patterns. The performance was served by four very fine soloists. A recitalist, oratorio- and opera singer today in great demand worldwide, tenor Robin Tritschler gave a performance that was expressive and splendidly served throughout by his clean, easeful and mellifluous timbre, as in his sensitive and compassionate rendition of “Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow”. Countertenor Alon Harari’s ample, stable voice, his ornamenting, sense of contrast and drama gave credence to the texts, obvious, for example, in his strategically-timed, dolorous singing of “He was despised”. Baritone Oded Reich created the specific mood of each piece, from the gripping “...I will shake the heavens and the earth” to the eerie “...people that walked in darkness” to the triumphant “The trumpet shall sound”, that latter enhanced by the trumpet obbligato role. Soprano Tal Ganor’s signature sound is bright, delicate, precise and pleasing. In “Rejoice greatly”, she negotiated the rapid melismatic moments with agility, assuredness, and exuberance.

But the performance was also a celebration of Handel’s choruses, as the singers here highlighted the work’s emotional agenda and messages, the dramatic potential of each text and the astonishing variety of Handel’s choral writing, whose course constantly shifts between a kind of “speaking” music, which declaims speech patterns in the text, and a more lyrical “singing” music, with keywords emerging for all to hear. The singers were highly attentive of McGegan, as they displayed confidence, the three choirs singing as one, their diction articulate (and British!), their performance of contrapuntal sections, however complex, well delineated. Their buoyant singing bristled with dynamic- and textural variety, at times subtly restrained, at others, gregarious and arresting. As to the pivotal Hallelujah chorus, when completed by Handel with no little anxiety and distress, the composer reportedly told his servant, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself seated on His throne, with His company of Angels.”

Following the first performance of “Messiah” in 1742, one critic referred to it as the “Sublime, the Grand and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.” “Messiah” is one of the few pieces in music history to enjoy popular success during its composer's lifetime and never fall out of favour since his death. Most of today’s audiences have heard the oratorio countless times, know it word for word and approach each presentation with just a touch of trepidation: will this be simply “another” performance of ”Messiah”? In the case of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s event, the answer was a definite “no”! Maestro McGegan pooled his forces into creating a production that was wholehearted, fresh, exciting and elegant.

Nicholas McGegan (photo: Steve Sherman)

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