The time has come to franchise Handel's Messiah.
The Philadelphia Orchestra has long stood by the piece, giving annual Christmas performances conducted by Handel specialists and with well-chosen soloists. Sunday's sold-out Kimmel Center performance promised to be particularly interesting: Conductor Paul Goodwin's soloists had either good Handel credentials, star power, or both. The Philadelphia Singers Chorale responded beautifully to him. Ovations were loud and long.
And yet there was also evidence of well-laid plans gone awry. The best-known of the soloists, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, was ill and canceled. Two of the others, tenor Gordon Gietz and baritone Christopheren Nomura, sounded as if they were on the verge of doing so, their normally fine voices obscured by excessive vibrato and audible labor.
The orchestra was generally in good form. Jeffrey Curnow's trumpet solo in "The trumpet shall sound" was amazing; violinist Davyd Booth was, this day, a welcome presence on harpsichord, particularly since he improvises discreetly. But the piece didn't fully awake until the chorus "For unto us a Child is born." Better late than never: In some cities, to love Handel's Messiah is to avoid it for fear of a heat-and-serve performance, or worse.
Christmas is a time when many people push themselves too hard, and for Messiah-worthy soloists, it's worse. Messiah season is their year-end bonus, with thick and fast performance opportunities (their kids need to go to college, too). But what can seem like a viable succession of Messiahs when you sign the contract starts looking less so when a nasty little winter illness comes along or when the TSA makes travel more onerous. For many singers, their vocal condition is a mirror of their day. They truly have bad voice days.
At least that's how I prefer to interpret what I heard from the thoroughly reputable Gietz. Notes literally caught in his throat during "Ev'ry valley shall be exalted." Nomura had that broken-car-transmission sound that comes when lower voices are bullying their way through Handel's passage work.
Veteran Handel soprano Lisa Saffer showed how it should be done: Coloratura passages effortlessly rippled from her throat. While I had been eagerly apprehensive about hearing a Wagnerite like DeYoung sing Handel, her replacement, Margaret Lattimore, touched the soul of what she sang in Handel's high-rhetoric recitatives, which she sings better than most anybody.
So the performance was good enough, probably better than what most cities get. But is that enough? No.
Performance quality is particularly crucial with Messiah. Not only is it the only Christmas perennial that orchestras have, it's also a great public relations opportunity. The Philadelphia Orchestra's Eugene Ormandy recording of the piece in decades past was a huge seller. Messiah attracts an audience outside typical symphonic circles, not just because the music is well known, but because the holiday season comes with a hear-this-now imperative. And though such audiences might be outwardly satisfied with what they hear, they won't come back unless they've experienced an inner satisfaction they may not articulate.
The power of the "Hallelujah Chorus" cannot be overestimated: Its direct, simple message is conveyed with a complexity that could only have been wrought by one of Western civilization's great geniuses. The canonic, fugal counterpoint, the overall contours of tension and release, and the ascending repetition of simple melodic cells conspire to create an expanding cloud of music that momentarily envelops, overwhelms, and transports. But you can't expect that, and any number of almost-as-great choral moments, to carry the piece.
Thus, my proposed franchise.
Most Messiah performances are conducted by guests, and that's good. This year's Minnesota Orchestra Messiah was led by its music director Osmo Vanska in a rare baroque music appearance, and the Web radio performance I heard was full of fussy, eccentric, anti-intuitive moments amid occasional brilliance. Breakthroughs in baroque performance have attuned our ears to a kind of musical veracity best delivered by specialists. Goodwin is one.
So why not have him handpick two quartets of favorite soloists well in advance, and offer them as a package to orchestras along the East Coast? Call it a Messiah caravan. And have it routed in ways that require only ground transportation, with alternating quartets of soloists to allow for vocal rest. That doesn't guarantee more consistently good Messiah performances, but it definitely improves the chances.
Several years ago, I followed the Netherlands Bach Society in a mini-Messiah tour throughout the foul-weather provinces of that country, in a manner similar to what I'm proposing. Every performance was a winner. In life, familiarity often results in something being taken for granted. In art, the exact opposite should be the norm.