Curtain call at the conclusion of "Messiah". Photo: Chuck Lavazzi

'Tis the season for Handel's "Messiah." This past weekend (December 2-4), Laurence Cummings conducted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (under guest choral director Patrick Dupré Quigley) in three traditional, Baroque-sized performances of Handel’s Greatest Hit.

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]

Laurence Cummings
Photo: Robert Workman

Every conductor, in my experience, assembles their own “Messiah” from the 57 separate numbers Handel wrote. Handel himself had no hesitation about doing so. That means every “Messiah” is slightly different.

Cummings’s “Messiah” was less celebratory and more reverential than previous versions I have seen at Powell Hall. It felt more informed by the Passion aspect of the piece than, say, the bracing version Bernard Labadie gave us back in 2015 or even the more dramatic Matthew Halls “Messiah” from 2018. That made the work no less compelling, though, and added a sense that we were on a journey from darkness into light. Besides, any “Messiah” that doesn’t seriously mess with Handel is welcome at what Dickens calls “this festive season of the year.”

First performed on April 13th, 1742, in Dublin, “Messiah” was, at least during Handel’s lifetime, generally regarded as appropriate for Easter rather than for Christmas.  After all, only the first of its three sections is devoted to the Annunciation. Part two is all about the Passion and the Resurrection (which is why it concludes with the famous “Hallelujah” chorus), while Part 3 deals with Judgement Day. So, even though it was part of the SLSO’s Christmas programming, this was ultimately a “Messiah” that would have been an equally good fit for Lent and Easter.

Jonathon Adams
Photo: Ayako Nishibori

The tone was set in the opening “Sinfonia.” It’s a typical example of what’s called a “French overture,” with a slow introduction followed by a more lively, dance-like fugal section. Cummings’s tempos were on the slow side for both, signaling the more solemn intent of the performance. The following two numbers—“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people” and “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted”—reinforced that feeling, thanks to tenor John Matthew Myers’s commanding stage presence, ringing voice, and clear communication of the text.

All four of the soloists, in fact, had strong, flexible voices. Baritone Jonathon Adams was an authoritative “voice of God” in “Thus saith the Lord,” “Why do the nations so furiously rage together” and, with the crystal-clear accompaniment of trumpeters Julian Kaplan and Austin Williams, “The trumpet shall sound.” Soprano Amanda Forsythe had fewer solos, but they were all tremendously effective. The entire “There were shepherds abiding in the fields” sequence radiated joy and featured some stunning top notes.  She, Adams, and Myers all clearly knew their parts well, and reached out to draw the audience into the emotional core of their songs.

The alto role was sung by countertenor Key’mon Murrah—an unusual but by no means unprecedented substitution that goes back to Handel’s time. Like his fellow soloists he had a solid voice with a particularly impressive high end and, also like the other soloists, he had a good feel for the Baroque concept of vocal ornamentation—something that’s not always a given with contemporary singers. He did not, however, seem to be as comfortable with the music as the others, and appeared to be much more dependent on his copy of the score, rarely engaging with the audience.

Amanda Forsythe
Photo: Arielle Doneson

The chorus does most of the heavy lifting in “Messiah,” and here the SLSO chorus continued living up to the high standards it set during the tenure of Amy Kaiser, who retired at the end of the 2021-2022 season. Enunciation was crisp, with even the most heavily melismatic sections wonderfully clear. Examples include “For unto us a child is born” and the contrary movement of the vocal lines in “All we like sheep have gone astray” (one of the many examples of Handel’s word painting).

The singers delivered the more emotionally charged numbers with fervor, including “Glory to God in the highest” and the excessively famous “Hallelujah” that concludes Part 2. And they did it without overwhelming the orchestra even though, with over 70 singers, they were twice the size of the band.

Much as Handel did in his day, Cummings conducted from one of two harpsichords, with Mark Shuldiner backing him up on the second instrument.  Shuldiner switched to the positif organ for the choruses, which allowed Cummings to use both hands to conduct the singers and the orchestra. The organ had a surprisingly hefty sound despite its small size, which added a nice sense of weight to the choral sections.

John Matthew Myers
Photo: Fay Fox

Cummings displayed a good feel for the theatrical aspects of “Messiah.” Prior to “Messiah” Handel had been known for his many operas. Switching to sacred subjects didn’t dilute his dramatic edge, so a little staging never hurts. Cummings had the soloists seated at the far sides of the stage when they weren’t singing, allowing them to make theatrical entrances and exits for their moments in the spotlight. It was a nice touch and spared the singers from having to stay seated front and center when the focus wasn’t on them.

Placing the trumpets up in the dress circle for the jubilant “Glory to God in the highest” was another nice touch, allowing the Good News to literally descend “from on high.”

Last but by no means least, let’s hand out some holly wreathes to the members of the SLSO for their excellent work as both soloists and ensemble members. A tip of the holiday hat is due to, among others, Assistant Concertmaster Erin Schreiber in “If God be for us,” Principal Tympani Shannon Wood in “Hallelujah,” and oboes Philip Ross and Xiomara Mass in the choral passages.

Key’mon Murrah
Photo: SLSO

The bottom line is that “Messiah” is a work that supports a wide variety of arrangements and interpretations. Every performance I have seen at Powell Hall since I started covering the SLSO on a regular basis over a decade ago has been faithful to the score’s Baroque roots, and yet each one has been a winner it its own unique way. The Cummings “Messiah” made a fine addition to that illustrious list.

Next at Powell Hall: Dame Jane Glover conducts an all-Mozart program consisting of the Symphony No. 36, K. 425 (“Linz”), the Violin Concerto No. 4 (with Concertmaster David Halen as soloist), and the Symphony No. 38, K. 504 (“Prague”). Performances are Friday at 10:30 am, Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm, December 9-11. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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