Venerable masterpiece revisited
by Philip Campbell
One of my favorite lines in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments comes when disgruntled Israelite Edward G. Robinson turns to his neighbors while they all flee the Egyptians, and snaps, "N'yeah, n'yeah, where's yer Messiah now?"
Well, that argument continues, but a lot of people accept the view of a messiah who has already been and gone and will return again. The only certainty for all of us is that the Christmas season rolls out like a cultural tsunami every year, and that a lot of favorite traditions come out of mothballs for one more nostalgic airing.
De rigueur, for music-lovers, is a yuletide visit with Handel's Messiah, and the Bay Area offers enough professional, amateur and mixed pro-am choices to make a fit with almost anyone's shopping schedule.
The beloved San Francisco Conservatory of Music's Sing-It-Yourself Messiah is ending a solid 26-year run this week at Davies Hall. It will surely be a sell-out, as the party has always had a core group of highly enthusiastic supporters, but keep your distance if all you want is a relaxing evening off your feet.
I got my annual fix last week, also in Davies Hall, with a professional (capital "P"), world-class Messiah that not only dusted off the venerable masterpiece, but brilliantly restored it to its rightful place in the pantheon of high and living art.
Conductor Harry Christophers, founder of the esteemed vocal ensemble The Sixteen, made his San Francisco Symphony debut along with a crew of remarkable soloists in Messiah performances that made the long (approx. 150 minutes) work truly fly by. The sense of drama and pacing was palpable throughout, and the maestro's urgent timing stifled even the occasional yawns invoked by endless ornamentation.
The choice of performing editions for Messiah is seemingly infinite, but Chrisophers opted for the 1741 premiere score, and, with an authentically reduced chorus and orchestra (albeit on modern instruments), presented an engrossing pageant that went far beyond the usual (and mistaken) notion that the work is only a Christmas oratorio.
Also making their SFS debuts were soprano Carolyn Sampson, countertenor Daniel Taylor and tenor James Gilchrist. Only bass Eric Owens was making a welcome return to Davies (many will also remember him from recent appearances at the Opera in Doctor Atomic).
Depending on advance word and recorded evidence, the arrival of "seraphic" Canadian singer Daniel Taylor or bit-of-a-dish Brit soprano Carolyn Sampson may have been unequally anticipated, but the reality was thrillingly divided between a pair of artists in the first bloom of their exciting careers.
Taylor, like his mate tenor Gilchrist, started with just a touch of grain in his otherwise exquisitely clear voice. Both of them warmed up quickly enough, but Sampson was out of the gate with a purity of tone and bright, vibrato-free range that simply stole the show.
Looking both stylish and appropriate in a simple strapless purple-and-black creation, the lovely young singer lit up the room with a sweet intensity and suitable air of wonder. Her every contribution revealed a deceptively simple approach that still managed to convey the remarkably fine-tuning of a voice in its early prime.
Taylor lived up to his press with a rather surprising mixture of hauteur and sincere involvement. He was particularly convincing in the long and technically difficult air, "He was despised and rejected of men." The pain of the moment and vivid mixture of grief and anger were spellbinding.
At other times we could glimpse the otherworldly beauty of Taylor's voice, but he was gratifyingly in step with Christophers' dramatic take on the score, and his interpretation of his many solos remained artistically consistent.
Tenor James Gilchrist has worked with The Sixteen before. Originally a doctor, he now works full-time in music. His strong, unfussy attack and dry-eyed declamations were in perfect accordance with the rest of the soloists. He improved to a point of excellence after his slightly unsteady start. His previous work on Messiah with Christophers was obviously helpful.
Bass Eric Owens made a major impression with his huge voice and unforced ornamentation. Like one of those big men who yet move like a ballet dancer, Owens made his vocal decorations sound effortless. He even managed a convincing trill, though none of the soloists could really surpass Ms. Sampson in that department.
Throughout the swift-moving concert, Christophers lunged, coaxed and shaped with a broad but incisive beat. His control and expression of the marvelous chorus, "For unto us a Child is born" (you can have "Hallelujah," this is my favorite), was enough to bring broad smiles to everyone on stage and in the hall. When the Chorus got to the word "wonderful," it really was.
Speaking of the Chorus — Vance George: It is still not too late to reconsider your departure. What will we do without you?
The SFS Chorus proved again why they have gained international recognition under George's leadership. The many purely choral moments burned with a crackling intensity and superb enunciation, not to mention beauty of tone. The libretto, printed in the program, was rendered unnecessary — every word was crystal-clear, and that could be said of the soloists as well.
The trees and greenery were not on display in Davies Hall yet, but the warmth and mellow feelings were, and thanks to Harry Christophers and a band of committed musicians, the holiday season has started with a breath of fresh air.