Nathalie Stutzmann’s magnificent “Messiah” in Washington DC

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
Sunday December 20, 2015, Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington DC

After five performances in two cities, it all came to a glorious conclusion Sunday early afternoon. Everything finally fitted together perfectly today from the beginning to end. Not even the long pause to let the late comers in can distract the flow. And after shuffling various seats, I found the perfect one (extreme left 3rd level–out of 4 total). My seat mate today was a very lovely and knowledgeable woman (from Yugoslavia originally). Upon hearing that this is my 3rd consecutive night listening to the *same* thing, she inquired and soon raved non-stop about Natalie. What did we see: a musician in the truest sense, with music flowing through her body, radiating from her finger tips to the instruments and reaching the chorus, before filling up the entire air space of Kennedy Center concert hall with energy, joy, and passion. We left further enlightened upon breathing in this same air that she had generously shared with us during her brief stay in DC.

puzzleI promise this will be the last time I discuss the pretext (with me, there will always be pretext! :-)). This is my 2nd journey to discover one of Händel’s masterpieces, with striking resemblance to the first one (“Alcina”) back in 2010 in Wien. Since my discovery of Nathalie Stutzmann conducting her orchestra in the Bach’s Imaginary Cantata on youtube, I was motivated to hear her “dissecting” anything Händel or Bach. This was one of the reasons (the other is Sara Mingardo) to visit France last year even though my knowledge of Messiah is severely limited. This year, since she was scheduled to conduct *SIX* performances in her American debut, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to self-“discover” Messiah. toolbox1With someone who provides such detailed descriptive orchestration and directions for singers and chorus, I view it as her offer to us to discover the “story”/music along the way. The important tools for the process are the tempo, shaping, dynamics, color, texture, phrasing, but not so much the text, as hinted perhaps by her selection of the singers (not emphasizing on native speakers but on those who can phrase). Each performance then provides complementary pieces to reconstruct the puzzle (for me). I still have not read up on the text, because I still believe that with the right shaping, the meaning in the music will emerge in its fullest form. What I’ve managed then, through these five performances, is to slowly build a deep understanding/connection for this piece. It’s still a project in progress, some of the arias/chorus-sections still need help fitting, but overall Nathalie Stutzmann has offered the key to the exploration journey. So, how about grabbing the toolbox and doing some reconstruction?

P1020284 The common theme in most of the discussions by the various seat-mates throughout all 5 performances have been her “very/too fast” tempo. My automatic reaction is “why?”. In fact, what is “usual”? Conventional? and who set it? based on what? Whether it’s singable or not, I can not tell. Given that Nathalie herself is an established world-class singer, and that the soloists were handpicked, I do not think she would push it _beyond_ their capabilities. On their toes, yes, (surely the chorus was!), but that is how Händel can be so effective I think! Not the “typical” snoozing-in-the-hammocks soothing type which I often complain about. Thus, my own answer to the question is the flow, what she would like to bring out, and from a listener perspective, when it works I “feel” it immediately with images forming in head and another puzzle piece fitting in to the large scheme. Several examples of this type of tempo can be heard in “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion”, “For unto us a child is born”, and in “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” in the first part. Especially in the “For unto us a child i born” (or might have been another chorus bit), my seat-mate was counting 1-2-3 to highlight that she was taking in 3x faster that how he was “used to hearing” :-).

felixThe next common theme of discussion is the “swinging”, “dancing” mood. This I always feel when listening to Händel and often “file complaints” when missing. So it is suuuuuch a welcome sign when right out of the gate she put the swing into the overture (see previous post) and continued through out the first and second parts, especially in “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion”, one immediately feel the immense screaming of joy bursting out spontaneously in every dark alley. Relatedly is the emotional ride: The opening elastic “drop and catch” of “Comfort ye my people” always gives a tight knot in the stomach with first hint of tears at the corner of the eye! The sample here is from Jean-Christophe Spinosi’s take at theater an der Wien (with the Arnold Schoenberg Chor!!).

N.Stutzmann’s take is just faster enough to create the “drop and catch” as when you swing the bell and feel the release and pull of the tension. Quite effective in a different sense and immediately created a different dynamical flow from the beginning.

Next up is the effect of “infiltration” and “sweeping” of momentum, which she used in combination with fast bows, this exact effect in fact, along with crescendo within 1 bow stroke to ramp up the tension, which then SPREADs sweepingly across the field through rushing of string and chorus sections. Here is an example (with bad quality sound, I felt compelled to offer given the lack of radio broadcast, grr. PLEASE, can we have a recording with NS conducting and SM singing Messiah PLEASE!!!)

Putting it all together, you see a story evolving instead of just a string of beautiful arias and chorus jolly tunes based simply on text of glory to the lord (the prime reason I have been allergic to this piece for so long.) A quick summary of the events then: the opening recitative: an announcement is made of the upcoming arrival of the Messiah. Quickly, all is celebrating to the dancing/swinging tune. The sweeping of the instruments along with it provides the image of sun light progressively reaching the darkest valleys. Joyous all around with the chorus joining in singing about glory. The dark thunderous voice intrude with “warnings” to non-believers, with narration from yet another dark voice with threatening tones, as emphasized in the accentuation of orchestra up and down along with “who shall stand” in his way “for he’s like a refiner fire”. In the 2nd verse, NS chose to have the narrative (still “but who may abide”) along with single cello, serving as a subtle unconscious reminder constantly in the back of one’s head. But all will be saved as he shall purify, sung uplifting-ly by the chorus!

At this junction, there is a bass aria which I’m still trying to sort out where it fits (in the music/shaping/context, think Verdi Prati in Alcina that I struggled with for years!) I’ve been thinking about it since the first night but still having difficulty.. perhaps because I don’t understand yet NS’s phrasing here.. Then it all makes sense again first with the chorus’ “For unto us a child is born” cheerful mood, followed by soprano’s recitative and Rejoice!! Then an interlude! I don’t know where it usually sits in typical performance, but here works like a charm with images of pilgrims flowing the street quietly visiting the newly born savior. And to cap it off, a gorgeous comforting opening phrase (in the orchestra) of “he shall feed his flock..” , followed by S.Mingardo deep comforting voice which brings tears of joy to my eyes.. The spirit is then lifted above strings into the open air with the soprano’s voice as a vehicle. snif.

I think we will have to leave it at this for the moment, as I’m still feeling the effect.. I will get around to compose the reconstruction of the 2nd part, as I now have much more understanding of how the chorus fits :-). Signing off for now in significantly higher spirit, it has been a truly memorable week.