Live Music: The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the Philharmonia Choir perform Handel’s “Messiah” at Disney Concert Hall

By Don Heckman

There are a lot of entrancing elements one anticipates from any given performance of Handel’s Messiah.  An opportunity to experience the music, the language and the spiritual perspectives of the mid-18th century.  A direct connection with the creative imagination of one of history’s great composers.  The pleasures of being wrapped in melodies you’ve heard – and perhaps sung — over the course of a lifetime.

All those qualities, and a lot more, were present Wednesday night at Disney Hall for the performance of Messiah by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the Philharmonia Choir.  The group’s conductor, Nicholas McGegan, is an acknowledged early music authority.  And the PBO, under his guidance, has worked hard – and largely succeeded – in bringing period authenticity to their recordings and performances.  As was the case with Wednesday’s program.

George Frideric Handel

Start with the period instruments: numerous 17th and 18th century strings – from violin to contrabass; period bassoons and oboes; a contemporary harpsichord built on an 18th century model; and a pair of difficult-to-play, natural valveless trumpets.  Add to that the articulate vocal ornamentations of the four principal soloists: soprano Dominique Labelle, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Thomas Cooley and baritone Nathaniel Watson.

Hearing the familiar Messiah music performed in this kind of acoustic environment – so close to what Handel had in mind when he composed the work (and then re-cast it for a variety of instrumental combinations) — was a mesmerizing experience.  The score is filled with textures expressing the many-layered emotions of Charles Jennens’ Bible-based libretto.  And the warmly expressive tonal qualities of the period instruments brought it all to life, directed by McGegan, whose animated, even gymnastic, conducting style actually had more to do with illuminating the music than the personally oriented baton choreography so prevalent these days.

Ultimately, of course, any Messiah performance is only as good as its chorus and its vocal soloists.  There were mixed results from the latter.  Labelle’s soaring soprano was exquisite – in every Air and Recitative, but especially in a touching “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”  Tenor Cooley brought a powerful sense of drama to every passage he sang. Baritone Watson and counter tenor Taylor were equally determined, but less effective as musical communicators.

One couldn’t have asked anything more from the Philharmonia Chorale, however.  From the opening “And the glory of the Lord” through the climactic “Hallelujah” the ensemble’s 24 singers revealed every compelling musical twist and turn, a complete engagement with the far-reaching, emotional breadth of Handel’s score.

As always, this week has produced, and will continue to produce, a variety of Messiah performances, from church choirs to fully professional ensembles.  Wednesday’s interpretation by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the Philharmonia Choir has to be considered one of this season’s most memorable.

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