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!

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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.

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Händel Messiah round 3

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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!
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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!)
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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.

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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.
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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? 🙂

Nathalie Stutzmann triumphed in Detroit

Finally a window in time to blog on Nathalie Stutzmann’s triumphant Sunday afternoon in Detroit! From the opening bar of music, finally the orchestra responded to her direction. And as “simple” as that, it was an afternoon to remember. The violin section finally played with deep passion (something much needed but lacking the night before), and since they opened the music, everything fell into place. Nathalie, the soloists, and the chorus were on fire! The first hour *zoomed* by quickly, the 2nd FULL of energy despite the heavier content, and yes, one can NEVER go wrong after a triumphant “Halleluja”. For listeners seeking the meaning in the music, I sat there realizing how rare it was the occasion.

Händel’s “Messiah”
Nathalie Stutzmann, conductor
Emöke Barath, soprano
Sara Mingardo, contralto
Lawrence Wiliford, tenor
Stephen Powell, baritone
Michigan State University Chorale
Detroit Symphony Orchestra (slim)
Sunday December 13, 2015, Orchestra Hall, Detroit

Pardon the rambling format. Am on travel again.. but wanted to get this out! With the orchestra in place, finally more time could be spent following to the individual arias, duets, chorus, and their interactions with the instruments. The Händel swing came back! I remembered smiling to self thinking: this finally sounds like Händel! 😀 . Again, Lawrence Wiliford did a *superb* job with the opening descriptive naration. Every BODY (and valley too) shall be exalted! I LOVE the swinging intro music to this, which follows after a rather tense narration and serving like valve release to spread energy through valleys + canyons! AND YES! FINALLY, the proper support for “But who may abide..”, intense building up of tension, For he is like a refiner’s fire: “Forceful downward runs, leaps and trills of the voice are accompanied by fiery figuration in the strings” (source: wikipedia). YES! that’s exactly what it was, leaps + trills, fiery figuration in strings! And while we (I) grabbed on to the edge of the seat, O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion followed right behind with its swinging tune mo..u..n..t..a.in.. , i *love* how Sara Mingardo spread the deep voice + high notes around that word, and for the opposite measure, “g..l.ooo.o.o..o.ry of the lord”, deeeeep notes! simply ❤ . In between the 2 arias, the chorus did their job in each group in "single voice" precision to build the the dynamics. Then it was Emöke Barath's turn with rejo..o…y..c..e., and shout, shout! SHOUT! "virtuoso coloratura" yes! my host, who sang this in the chorus before couldn't stop her praise for the breath control and phrasing, mentioning to me how very difficult it is to sing this aria (I of course wouldn't know 🙂 ). Yes yes i know, the baritone has a couple of dabs in between all these but.. how can I pay attention to that when *then* Sara Mingardo laid the waaaaaaaarm phrasing of "he shall feeds his flock..", unto my soul yes, i got teary eyes hearing *her* phrasing, pure joy + luxury of voice mixing in with little sprinkled embellishment and the naïve understanding of the poetic text (spare me the actual meaning, i purposely have never read the entire libretto..).. And while we recover from that, E.Barath's high voice floating above the orchestra.. and i regretted that they were not duetting! in fact that's the only thing Messiah is missing! But it compensates with the ENORMOUS amount of interactions with orchestra that finally we get to hear this time around. So that roughly was my memory of the first hour, simply *STUNNING*. TRUE music making. My host was very happy, because of course like many people i'm guessing she has never heard of N.Stutzmann and would not have come had I not so actively shoved my way into their place :-).

Onto the 2nd part where the chorus took front and center attention, whispers mixing in with ensemble single-voice forceful message. Then all things came to a halt as he somberly was despised and spitted on. Personally i found the tempo to start a little bit slow, until when S.Mingardo entered, and magically, 3-D image formed along with her *very* descriptive vocal line how he was rejected (poor him 😀 ). Yes, this is the right place to provide this link (given that I failed to take photos! truly was taken over by the force)

HARK!! that video was taken down! NO!! hark hark!
(this one with Sir Colin Davis)

The mob then barged in, Let him deliver him. If you want to fully understand the mob-mentality, on how by-standers can suddenly turn into monsters, this is how to do it! the tempo is again quite brisk, but i find it justly done and highly effective. An URGENT message from the rowdy mob with unpredictable mentality! quite on edge! This transitioned into a heart-breakingly beautiful phrasing of “Behold and see if there be any sorrow” by L.Wiliford. Goose-bump inducing the music, more tears in the corner of eyes, the loooong “Behold”, as heard from a 3rd person perspective narrating along. Quite ironic somehow, very effective. Finally Halleluja came, the real mass stood up blocking my entire view, so i opted to just listen…

The 3rd part came too soon, starting with E.Barath’s lovely phrasing of “I know that my Redeemer liveth”.. but in fact the irony of it all didn’t hit until her last aria “If God be for us”. This was done at medium-fast tempo, and somehow gave the same feeling in my head as the jolly tune in the tomb scene of “I Capuleti e i Montecchi”. Perhaps that is the point, he is buried in the tomb too! Musically N.Stutzmann made the contrasting of tempo and rowdy mass-dynamics versus “taking a step back and reflecting” so vivid, it was as if you yourself took part in the mass beating, then now left to reflecting outside the tomb as he is gone… Prior to reflecting we had the GORGEOUS pairing of S.Mingardo and L.Wiliford in “Oh death, where is thy sting?”. THEY LOVE DUETTING!! Smiling and exchanging glances. Yes yes I know, the content is a bit heavy, but that is the point! Let’s take death head-on! What’s the problem, he can handel this! Their exchanged smiles at the end are priceless, i love them :-). After the little fun, the reflection, the chorus capped it with first the forceful “Worthy is the Lamb..” before engaging in the loooong hymn of “Amen”.

There, a narrative form of my experience. As heard under the direction of the superlative Nathalie Stutzmann. When all participated their parts (orchestra, chorus, soloists), we heard how the story unfolded before our eyes, we took part in the mob, we reflected and pondered, and post-concert, we DIE TO DISCUSS to ANYONE around! YES, post-concert, dear readers, I chased down a friendly usher to ask my way into backstage. I was quite worried they would turned me away because first they asked who I was (nobody, a BIIIG FAN of music! passionate fan!), then took my name down, let me station outside the “access only” door while they ran background check probably.. I was counting the turns of the long-arm of the clock wondering if the singers and Nathalie had left already.. but patience finally paid off, the door opened and I was escorted in! Standing inside the backdoor at the end of a long hallway were S.Mingardo, L.Wiliford, and Stephen Powell with his HUGE suitcase. I chatted with all, discussing the difference in orchestra response in the 2 nights, their wonderful phrasing, their dynamics and duets with orchestra and chorus. E.Barath came out and I promptly made a conversation too (what can i say, after a night like this i DESPERATE for people to talk to!!!) She was very friendly, and was in Boston for 1 semester at Longy school of music! and Yes, Boston is an exceptionally beautiful and wonderful city! In any case, while waiting for Nathalie (and their car driver) we all discussed further musical phrasing, ideas, pop-corn Messiah versus deep meaningful interpretation, concert hall acoustics.. The Detroit concert hall is small and *very* cozy with great acoustic! But Kennedy Center is going to be a challenge am told! But as my discussion with the fan of N.Stutzmann went, we are confident Nathalie will take care of that to make sure we hear well all singers and particular S.Mingardo! In any case, finally Nathalie came out and I exuberantly expressed how much I love her shaping of the music, how I flew to Metz and Paris first to get a chance to hear how she wanted to shape it with her own orchestra so that later we (I) can compare with all other versions. She was happy to hear! We discussed briefly how Sunday’s afternoon performance was much more vibrant, and I told them all I will be there to hear them again in a few days!

So that’s about it. I made 3 new friends in Detroit, my wonderful wonderful hosts who picked me up at the airport, drove me to the concert hall on saturday (40min drive!) , picked me up afterward, delivered me (and i dragged 1 of my hosts along) to the 2nd performance, picked up again AFTER waiting while i maneuvering backstage.. and treated me to a NIIICE dinner before dropping me off at the airport. I had not much to return except for my enthusiastic non-stop discussion of the music and animated descriptions of the difference of the 2 nights. Hopefully Nathalie will come back there as it would give me another opportunity to revisit my newly found wonderful friends.

Signing off as I getting ready for yet another cross-country flight.. then onto DC on the weekend! VERY MUCH looking forward. Will be very curious to hear how it will go with an entirely different chorus and orchestra. I hope all goes well so far with rehearsal and that they had more opportunity to do some walking and sight-seeing in DC. I can’t wait :-).
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(ps- sorry for the LOONG narrative rambling. I failed to take photos and now am too tired to dig up my wonderful selfie with host in the concert hall… but have just been told we should visit here for a proper photo! that’s how to do marketing!)