Arts & Events

Handel’s MESSIAH at Grace Cathedral

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Wednesday December 24, 2014 - 05:09:00 PM

Handel’s Messiah, that old chestnut (roasting on an open fire), has been performed in Grace Cathedral every Christmas season for the last 15 years by American Bach Soloists under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas. This year, once again, ABS brought together at Grace Cathedral four eminent singers, a choir of 36 choristers, and 34 orchestra members playing period instruments, all led by conductor Jeffrey Thomas in three performances of Handel’s Messiah, December 16, 18-19.  

Of all the Messiahs currently offered locally, (one by San Francisco Symphony, plus several Sing Along opportunities), the American Bach Soloists’ version in Grace Cathedral is definitely the one to see and hear. This is because, for starters, as mentioned above, ABS plays only period instruments. Secondly, ABS music director Jeffrey Thomas is a leading scholar on Baroque music and its interpretation. Thirdly, Grace Cathedral is both acoustically wonderful and an appropriately spiritual venue for listening to this most glorious of all religious oratorios. 

Handel himself was not outwardly religious as was his contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach. But, as Milton Cross notes, “Handel became the God-intoxicated man while writing the Messiah.” Shutting himself off from the world in his London house in 1741, seeing no one, eating and sleeping little, Handel composed this two and a half-hour oratorio in a mere 25 days. His servants feared he was going mad. When he completed the “Hallelujah Chorus” he exclaimed to his servants, “ I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”  

Messiah is in three parts. The first presents the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. The second recounts the suffering and crucifixion of Christ. The con-cluding section deals with the Resurrection. As the Messiah begins, an instrumental Sinfony opens softly, with strings, trombones, bassoons, and organ playing a slow and stately orchestral prelude. A recitative for tenor, “Comfort ye,” sung here by Kyle Stegall, follows in somewhat sluggish fashion, followed by a vernal breath of fresh air in the tenor’s aria, “Ev’ry Valley shall be exalted.” With this note of optim-istic prophecy, the oratorio begins to take wing.  

In an accompanied recitative, the bass, sung here by baritone Jesse Blumberg, sings that God shall shake the earth and the sea; and Handel’s music quavers repeatedly on the word “shake.” Then an alto, sung here by countertenor Eric Jurenas, sings of good tidings to Zion. However, Jurenas was not able vocally to project the text and seemed lacking in power except in his high notes. However, a note of exaltation is reached in the chorus, “For unto us a Child is born;” and another high point occurs when the soprano, angelically sung here by Mary Wilson, delivers the aria, “Rejoice greatly.” Mary Wilson also concludes Part I of the Messiah with “Come unto him all ye that labour.” 

After intermission, Part 2 quickly features the mournful aria, “He was despised and rejected of men,” sung here by countertenor Eric Jurenas, who carried off this aria in fine voice. Between this aria and the famed “Hallelujah Chorus,” Handel’s music slackens noticeably in dramatic power; but this is more than com-pensated for in the unmatched power of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which ends Part 2. 

If one wonders whether Handel, following the sheer brilliance of the “Hal-lelujah Chorus,” could possibly continue to elevate the musical quality of this oratorio, the quiet aria for soprano, “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” which opens Part 3, quickly reassures us that Handel has not yet reached even his own inspired heights. This serene aria, beautifully sung here by Mary Wilson, leads us into the third and final pert of the Messiah, offering a celebration of the Resurrection and its meaning for all mankind. Then, a recitative and aria for bass, “The trumpet shall sound,” powerfully sung here by baritone Jesse Blumberg and accompanied by a trumpet solo featuring John Thiessen, becomes yet another high point in this overwhelmingly powerful oratorio. Finally, a chorus, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,” followed by the solemn “Amen Chorus,” brings this Messiah to a rousing close.