December 19, 2018

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Presents Innovative Performance of “Messiah”

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra returned to Richardson Auditorium last Friday night for its annual presentation of George Frideric Handel’s immortal holiday classic Messiah. Led by conductor Patrick Dupré Quigley, 35 members of New Jersey Symphony, along with four vocal soloists and the Montclair State University Singers, presented an interpretation of Handel’s complex work which, although numbers were cut here and there, still conveyed the story well.   

With so few instrumentalists, expertly supported by harpsichordist Aya Hamada and portatif organist John Miller as continuo players, the performance was consistently light and precise. A vocal quartet comprised of soprano Margot Rood, countertenor Reginald Mobley, tenor Steven Soph, and bass Charles Wesley Evans provided much of the work’s drama through arias and recitatives, with Quigley’s tempi moving the music along quickly. 

Quigley opened the oratorio with a clean and lithe overture, with the 12 violins playing in a detached and almost dry style. Soph’s opening recitative and aria not only presented the Biblical text well, but were also an elegant conversation between tenor soloist and the few strings accompanying him. Possessing a light yet clear voice, Soph always had a good command of the musical line and executed vocal runs cleanly. He particularly excelled in the Part II dramatic recitatives leading up to the “Hallelujah” chorus. 

Soprano Margot Rood not only found grace and warmth in the music, but also was a coloratura machine in the fast-running passages. She delivered text with a comforting demeanor and perfect control over lightning quick lines. Rood sang the virtuosic aria “Rejoice greatly” with ease, interpolating a short cadenza-like passage before the ending. Joined by solo violinist Eric Wyrick and light continuo accompaniment, Rood comforted the audience well with “I know that my Redeemer liveth” toward the end of the evening. 

The most difficult decision about soloists a conductor needs to make in preparing this work is whether to use a female alto or male countertenor for the alto arias. Handel used both at various times; several arias are clearly more suited for a high male voice than a low female one. Countertenor Reginald Mobley possessed a high register which cut well through the orchestral texture, and added a warm color to the music, especially passages accompanied by solo cello and harpsichord. The aria “O Thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” was almost overly ornamented, but Mobley handled the musical effects well.

Bass Charles Wesley Evans began his musical career locally as a youth, in the Princeton-based American Boychoir. Of the four soloists Friday night, Evans was among the most expressive conveyor of text, at times ministerial and professorial, finding emotion in the words and changing moods easily. Evans sang his first aria with clean runs and leaving no doubt that he would “shake the heavens and the earth,” and had no trouble with the extended vocal runs in the Part II aria “Why do the nations so furiously rage together.” The bass signature piece in this oratorio is “The trumpet shall sound,” which although often truncated in performances in the interest of time, was presented Friday night in its entirety, with Evans and trumpeter Scott McIntosh in perfect dialog and with effective dynamic contrasts.

There are as many interpretations of Messiah as there are conductors, and Quigley brought a unique approach to the work on Friday night. One of the most unusual musical effects was Quigley’s re-assignment of traditional choral sections to vocal soloists, and vice versa. Some of the toughest passages for chorus are the coloratura sections in Part I; Quigley opened each of two coloratura choruses with the vocal quartet of soloists, accompanied by solo strings and dramatic re-emphasis of the text by the Montclair State University Singers. The chorus added particular dramatic stress on the words “Wonderful, Counsellor” in the crowd-pleasing chorus “For unto us a child is born.” This reallocation of music took pressure off the chorus to maintain the coloratura style and made the ensemble’s performance all the more dramatic. Alternatively, soprano Rood sang three of the four “angel” recitatives, announcing the Nativity with warmth and color, yet in the fourth recitative, the chorus became the “multitude of the heavenly host praising God.”

The 65 members of the Montclair State University Singers, prepared by Heather J. Buchanan, were appropriate in lightness for a performance of these numbers, with the alto section being the meatiest contingent of the chorus. The soprano section was impressively clean in vocal runs, usually right in tandem with the pair of accompanying oboes. Quigley chose to use the ensemble at times as a Greek chorus, giving the declamatory text to the vocal quartet, with the chorus commenting or providing accentuation. Throughout the performance, Quigley kept tempi moving along, enabling the audience to keep up well with the storyline and the performance’s imaginative musical gestures.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s next performance in Princeton will be Friday, January 18, 2019 at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Conducted by Xian Zhang, this concert will feature soprano Dawn Upshaw in music of Mahler and American composer Maria Schneider. Ticket information can be obtained by calling 1-800-ALLEGRO or by visiting