December 20, 2017

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Presents Inventive Performance of Classic Handel Work

“All good things come to those who wait,” so goes the saying. The audience for New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s Friday night concert at Richardson Auditorium had to wait a bit for the orchestra to arrive through the snow, but following the late start, orchestra, chorus, and soloists presented a well-informed performance of George Frideric Handel’s perennial Christmas holiday favorite, Messiah. NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang took a unique and creative journey through a work which is enjoyable in any form, but so much more fun with an imaginative approach to performance practice.

Messiah is divided into 53 recitatives, arias, and choruses, and most performing ensembles cut sections in the interest of time; Handel himself adjusted the work for varying performance conditions. Zhang chose to pass over some of the more obscure numbers in Parts II and III, but retained the crowd-pleasers. For true Messiah aficionados, there may have been a few notable omissions, but Friday night’s performance flowed easily, and Zhang’s speedy tempi in certain numbers kept the piece moving along.

The scaled-down NJSO demonstrated clean and precise playing from the outset, beginning the Overture in a stately tempo, with effective echoes on repetitions of phrases. It was clear that Zhang was going to do a great deal with dynamic contrasts in this performance, and the strings, including only a dozen violins, played with consistent flexibility and agility throughout the evening.

The storyline of Messiah is conveyed largely by vocal soloists, with musical commentary by the chorus. NJSO compiled a vocal quartet of solid operatic singers, all of whom communicated well with the Richardson audience. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby has a long and distinguished career in oratorio and opera, and well handled the range difficulties of Messiah’s arias for alto soloist. Handel composed several of these arias for the renowned 18th-century Italian castrato Gaetano Guadagni, and in contemporary performances, these arias are often sung by a counter-tenor. Although Maultsby’s “Refiner’s Fire” aria lacked a bit of drama because of the low range and wide vocal skips, she soared richly in the middle register and above in arias later in the work. Maultsby was particularly clean in a long coloratura line in “O Thou that Tellest Good Tidings to Zion” — a passage which often confounds female alto soloists.

Soprano Ellie Dehn stepped in as a late replacement, but Messiah is solidly in her background. Her operatic credits include some of the more lyrical roles in the repertory, and her voice sparkled in Friday night’s concert, especially in the soprano showstopper “Rejoice.” Dehn had the vocal runs down cold, especially in the repeat of the first section of that aria, and raced up and down to the high B flat with ease.

The orchestral accompaniment to “Rejoice” showed Zhang’s inventiveness in interpreting Messiah. The soprano soloist was accompanied by a chamber ensemble of four violins, two celli, one double bass and harpsichord (consistently well played by Robert Wolinsky). This combination, often with the addition of a pair of violas, two oboes and a single bassoon, was frequently heard in contrast to the full orchestra in accompanying an aria or chorus. In another example, in Maultsby’s “O Thou” aria, a small group of strings accompanied her solo singing and the full orchestra joined in when the chorus entered. In a popular work such as Messiah, audiences can either sit back and let the familiar music wash over them or be on the lookout for clever orchestral nuances such as these.

Tenor Miles Mykkanen set the overall mood for the work well with his Part I arias, singing with an effective edge to the vocal sound, especially when presenting the recitatives of derision which set up the “Hallelujah” chorus. Bass Michael Sumuel particularly excelled in the dramatic “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage” and the perennial favorite, “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” elegantly accompanied by trumpet soloist Garth Greenup. The “Nations” aria was almost alarmingly fast, but Sumuel had no trouble keeping up.

The choruses in Messiah comment on or complement the soloists’ texts, and are often as musically intricate and complex as the arias in the work. The Montclair State University Singers, conducted by Heather J. Buchanan, were vocally lithe and agile throughout the piece (the sopranos get exceptional gold stars for their precise coloratura). Although the choral stamina demanded by this piece caught up with the men’s sections a bit, the Montclair Singers were able to respond to Zhang’s every gesture and idea.

Snow may have held up Friday night’s performance for a short period of time, but the performance quickly heated up with clean and nimble playing and singing, and the audience quickly forgot about the daunting weather conditions outside.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s next Princeton performance will be on Friday, January 19 in Richardson Auditorium. Featured will be the music of Martinu, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff. For information call (800) ALLEGRO or visit