Although some purists might argue that re-envisioning an ensconced classic such as Handel’s “Messiah” may threaten its iconic dignity, one could also claim the very opposite. For one thing, a contemporary stylized version of the “Messiah” serves to educate and spark the interest of new listeners so that they may wish to become acquainted with the original. Several years ago, in a stunning testament to the decline of American education, reporters on a major non-cable television network referred to the “Messiah” as “one of the most famous songs ever written”, demonstrating a complete lack of knowledge of what an oratorio is and what Handel sought to convey. (At least, though, the network should be commended for running a story on serious music, flawed though it was.) The Gospel version retains the integrity of the oratorio framework, along with Handel’s original melodies and, in many cases, the traditional harmonies. Even the basic role of the Baroque orchestra is maintained, substituting an improvisational gospel piano style for the harpsichord continuo and leaving brass, percussion and strings (and yes, a few saxophones and other things) in place.
Interestingly, too, we know that the Baroque era, in which the “Messiah” was birthed, was a period in which transcriptions, revisions and new harmonizations were gleefully arranged and accepted. Even so, the “Gospel Messiah” is a bold departure, but clearly hewn from precedent.
Laying such matters aside, the “Gospel Messiah”—the brainchild of Marin Alsop, Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson—is a riveting and rollicking transformation of a beloved work into way may well become a new tradition in its own right.
Mounting such a work is not for the fainthearted; the performance requires verve, energy, electricity, self-confidence and a willingness to let go and simply ride the music. Fortunately, these factors were abundantly present. The musicians, chorus and vocal soloists acted as co-creators, not just participants. Although there was not a weak link anywhere, tenor Thomas Young’s magnificent voice, in particular, engulfed the hall. Though perhaps not as strong in terms of volume, Cynthia Renee Saffron and La Tanya Hall exhibited a florid agility that complemented Young’s massive resonance.
Conductor Kevin McBeth welded together the diverse ensemble, which included various guest instrumentalists. Faced with the task of maintaining unity and control without sacrificing spontaneity, he negotiated the waters with aplomb and artistic good sense. All in all, a highly enjoyable, yet always meaningful, homage to a great masterwork.