Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philadelphia Orchestra performs its freshest Messiah in years

Early-music specialist Jeannette Sorrell was on the podium, bringing revelations.

Conductor Jeannette Sorrell leading the Philadelphia Orchestra, Philadelphia Symphonic Choir and bass-baritone Douglas Williams Thursday in "Messiah" in Verizon Hall.
Conductor Jeannette Sorrell leading the Philadelphia Orchestra, Philadelphia Symphonic Choir and bass-baritone Douglas Williams Thursday in "Messiah" in Verizon Hall.Read morePhiladelphia Orchestra

As a fixture on the holiday landscape, Handel’s Messiah feels more like a brand name than the idiosyncratic, shape-shifting masterpiece that it is.

But the latter is what happily emerged in a trim, just-over-two-hours performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra on Thursday at the Kimmel Center. The catalyst was guest conductor Jeannette Sorrell, well-known in early-music circles mainly through the Cleveland-based but ever-mobile Apollo’s Fire, which is a significant presence in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere.

Handel was never an etched-in-stone composer, and in that spirit, Sorrell seems to encourage highly personal ornamentation from the vocal soloists, and sometimes cut the instrumentation down to a few intimate players with herself on harpsichord — while also drawing first-class choral singing from the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir. Despite the quick assemblage that’s typical of holiday concerts, Thursday’s performance was the freshest live-concert Messiah I’ve heard in years.

Sorrell’s recording with Apollo’s Fire, though excellent, seems to call out for the greater sustaining power of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The dotted rhythms of the opening overture can seem halting in Sorrell’s period-instrument Apollo’s Fire, while the Philadelphians, even with a sound scaled back by their own standards, offered greater rhetorical power. The conductor’s commitment to the score yielded some occasionally eccentric phrase readings but also significant revelations: The chipper chorus “All we like sheep” ended with a weighty coda — “And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of all” — that became the heart of that section.

Vocal soloists in Messiah can seem tired and mismatched under the hectic holiday circumstances, but not this quartet. Soprano Sonya Headlam beautifully transitioned between Handel’s extroverted and more chamber-scaled manner, while mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke connected deeply with the dramatic gravity of “He was despised.” The often-heard-here tenor Nicholas Phan was his cultivated, intelligent self. And though bass-baritones rarely sound comfortable in Handel’s coloratura passages, Douglas Williams made his treatment of the words count for more.

Much distinguished instrumental work was heard from concertmaster David Kim in his scaled-back, period-instrument-style vibrato and trumpeter Caleb Hudson in “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” I’d even say that, overall, the Thursday performance was predominantly wonderful — much more than one could hope for in such well-trodden repertoire.

No additional performances of Messiah. The Philadelphia Orchestra performs the Muppet Christmas Carol live to film Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $59-$89., 215-893-1999.