Händel Messiah round 3

Just got back. Where to begin. I will change the format of this a little bit, not just in term of (still) in rambling format but more on “discovering” Messiah as well as comparisons. And as I have said all needed things regarding N.Stutzmann’s direction for this piece, I’d refer you to my posts from Detroit (the last 2 posts) or from last year, or this really nice review just so you get an independent view and don’t think I’m making things up :-). For the rest of this post, I’ll break things into 3 groups: 1. Impression of the performance today (instead of reviewing individual aria), 2. Comparison of sound from the two concert halls, and 3. making analogy to Händel’s masterpiece Alcina!

Händel’s “Messiah”
Nathalie Stutzmann, conductor
Emöke Barath, soprano
Sara Mingardo, contralto
Lawrence Wiliford, tenor
Stephen Powell, baritone
University of Maryland Chorus
National Symphony Orchestra
Friday December 18, 2015, Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington DC

First up, the impression: Nathalie Stutzmann will have to excuse me because I spent 60% of my time smiling widely at the phrasing of the violins and missing watching her. But of course watching her is not the point, we were there to absorb the music the way maestra Stutzmann wanted! A few conclusions then: yes, modern strings can do pianissimo! bow movement: checked! increasing intensity within 1 stroke: checked. staccato: checked. swooping: checked. swinging: checked. passionate: checked. They pulled out all stops with their display of virtuoso. My 4th row seat offered full view of range of joyful to heartbreak to mournful to rocking, particularly from those 2 violinists at the front!

I might have mentioned before that I don’t know Messiah very well. This is mainly because of its religious content and how it is often sung here in the US (religiously rather than expressively). And N. Stutzmann is now “forcing” me to read up on the text 🙂 , because the story was unfolding so interestingly you (I) begin to wonder: why is she doing this here? What is her reason? What does she want? And as the string sections (the cellos!! GORGEOUS!) demonstrated, she can get what she needs here (I still have some questions regarding volumes, but more later), which allows us to ask very specific questions regarding intentions! So, I’ve promised myself that my homework between now and tomorrow night’s performance will be a full investigation of the text so that I can try to understand her phrasing more coherently!
Onto the singers: with the strings providing them with descriptive introduction, be it passionate, heart-breaking, stormy, the soloists followed with exquisite phrasing. First I will confess during “he was despised” of feeling _sad_ that this would the last chance I have sitting *that* close to Sara Mingardo for this run. I was very tempted to station myself in 4th row right in front of her the ENTIRE time but wanted to also have a bird-eye view of N.Stutzmann conducting + more view of the orchestra dynamics + chorus.. As a result my tickets for the next two nights will be on extreme side balcony rather than in front of her, snif. It’s very rare to have this kind of opportunity. I am not simply talking about the tone. It is her phrasing that really makes you think of the context (and not the text). Not just of the meaning of the aria but its connection to what has passed and what will follow, sort of offering the vision of zooming in to her individually, then out to understand the meaning of the aria existence. I’ll get around to articulate this better someday :-). (What I will also miss is watching her dancing along with the orchestra!)
Next up is E.Baráth’s phrasing: I really like her voice! I have read reviews of various description of it.. and (perhaps in contrast) I found her tone to match very well with the orchestra (modern in this case.. I have not heard live her with baroque) as well as offering quite nice balance with SM’s deep voice. And the words are shaped such that they rarely interfere with the musical phrasing. In fact both hers and S.Mingardo’s singings got me promising myself I’d read up on the Messiah once and for all to comprehend better what they were shaping! (that, and the overture + minuet N.Stutzmann offered, more later!) As for L.Wiliford, again, I quite like his phrasing. And though I agree with the couple of reviews on how he handeled the “angry” section, it seems in the performance today he toned down a bit and overall the phrasing fitted with the content of the text quite well. As far as sadness + melancholy are concerned, he got just the right sustained voice and tone to provide the listener with ample times to “reflect” on the meaning of the text/situation/big-picture.

The duet Alto-Tenor was cut out! along with a few sections, so I was deprived of their comedy! (This is where some kind of “interludes” were offered I believe, to connect the “dots”. I was wondering why the music sounds a bit odd, totally reminded me of the ballet in Alcina! 😀 ) In place, N.Stutzmann offered the ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS pairing of strings and baritone in “why do the nations…” . Amazing build-up of the mood, the “oomph”! Now she forces me to also read up on it to see what it’s about!

This brings us to the chorus. First, I notice there is quite a larger range of dynamics they offer compared to that in Detroit. However, as far as “precision” goes, I found them a bit loose, as well as “diffused”. This brings up the question regarding acoustic of the two halls perhaps. In Detroit’s orchestra hall, the warm sound comes directly at you, very focused! Here, I have no clue where sound goes actually. Especially with such a huge chorus, it “appears” as if their sound got sucked into this thing you have on top of your stove to swallow all the steams + odors :D. So, overall the impression was almost the reverse of Detroit: there the orchestra was a bit unfocused while the chorus fully operated as single energetic voice with dynamical range of soft to fff (but at higher increment); here the orchestra is highly focused and chorus is a bit diffused. It is also quite possible N.Stutzmann is arranging them a bit differently to account for the gigantic hall. Perhaps tomorrow with a higher seat the sound might just come to me? I will report.

Onto a little bit on sound balance. L.Wiliford and S.Mingardo sang pianissimo on a few occasions. I noticed S.Mingardo’s phrasing already in Detroit especially, in “He was despised”. There the hall was quite intimate, and the strings sounding hesitant which turned out ok because they didn’t interfere with her line. Here on several occasions she was singing very soft and at least 6 strings were accompanying her (along with cellos). Even as soft as they can play I could hear (because strings here were fully committed) they could potentially mask out her voice. In the case of L.Wiliford, N.Stutzmann cleared out the strings almost completely (either that or his pianissimo managed to rise just above strings) you don’t have the same issue. Speaking of clearing out the orchestra to feature vocal line, the da capo section of “why do the nations..” “the trumpet” !!!! WOOOOOW!!! solo bass voice to solo cello! This and “why do the namtions..” have got to be the highlight of my night and serving as the prime example of (a) having fun seeing how the strings pulling out all stops, (b) how to highlight – support vocal line, (c) how to build strength, and (d) how to shape an aria. I was grinning the whole time (so was Ms. Mingardo who was directly in front of me). In any case, I will report if these pianissimo reach my seats on balcony (2nd/Sat, 1st/Sun). I will cry if S.Mingardo’s voice is blocked :-).

So, enough of rambling. In summary, I have to again thank N.Stutzmann for her ability to shape the music to bring out the story to all of us, and the soloists, the NSO, and the chorus, for phrasing so well I have the leisure to investigate the music!! Thus, I would like to wrap it up with a little musing.
Sitting in the (gigantic) Kennedy Hall today it felt like I was listening to “Alcina”!! What I mean is the music is so descriptive you envision the scenes. And occasionally you have interludes/ballet as if during scene changes. Of particular is the overture (where the idea jumped out in my head!), it has 2 distinct mood (this might be typical Händel?): a slow+steady one, the jolly+swinging. Have a listen to the opening 2 bars of Messiah + Alcina below. Extracts of Messiah is from R.Jacobs (who I would compare N.Stutzmann with in term of providing details to highlight the music and bring out the swing/fun/meaning) and Alcina of course from Marc Minkowski in the one and only Wiener Staatsoper’s production (radio broadcast, Nov/2010).

Messiah Overture, Réne Jacobs, part1

Alcina Overture, Marc Minkowski, part1

Followed by the mood change:
Messiah Overture, Réne Jacobs, part2

Alcina Overture, Marc Minkowski, part2

See what I mean? 🙂

About thả diều
writing-challenged opera-addict

12 Responses to Händel Messiah round 3

  1. Betty Sledge says:

    I appreciate your blog. I so wanted to see Sara Mingardo in person but because of health issues I could not travel. You made it possible for me to feel I was almost there. Thank you.

    • thả diều says:

      you are very welcome! it has been a tremendous experience, and i am thrilled to hear the entire group has been enjoying the great hospitality + friendship + music making experience here in DC. Sara was phenomenal last night, i am still under the effect of her “he was despised”!

  2. Lankin says:

    Thank you for the report! This is a production I would have killed for; I’m so annoyed there wasn’t any broadcast. In particular, I need a recording of Powell sing “Why do the nations” – I just need it in my life.

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