New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Brings Handel’s “Messiah” to Richardson Auditorium
By Nancy Plum
Some orchestral ensembles keep things light musically during the holiday season — performing pops concerts full of spirited carols and celebratory music. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has traditionally maintained a more classical approach to this time of year with an annual performance of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah. Led by Music Director Xian Zhang, New Jersey Symphony brought Messiah to Richardson Auditorium on the campus of Princeton University last Friday night for full-house performance with orchestra, chorus, and four vocal soloists.
Handel’s 18th-century Messiah was by definition an oratorio, with close to 50 choruses, recitatives, and solos or duets tracing the life of Christ in three major sections. When performed in full, the concert can be more than three hours long, and conductors have long taken liberties with dropping numbers from the production. What to cut is often decided by the popularity of certain selections, and this was certainly the case with NJSO’s performance. Much of Part I, depicting the birth of Christ, was intact, but of the more than 30 musical selections comprising Parts II and III, NJSO performed only 16 choruses, recitatives, and arias. Truncating the oratorio to this extent can lose much of the work’s drama and theatricality, but NJSO’s presentation clearly retained the most familiar and popular solos, allowing the vocal soloists the chance to shine.
Friday night’s concert featured a very scaled-down instrumental ensemble, with a small group of strings, pairs of oboes and trumpets, a single bassoon and keyboard continuo accompaniment. Keyboard player Robert Wolinsky was kept particularly busy switching between harpsichord and portative organ, and several principal string players provided expert solo accompaniment in imaginative scoring to certain solo sections.
Zhang and the orchestra began the “Overture” to Messiah in a regal tempo, with relaxed double-dotted rhythms and a lean string sound. With Messiah being such a long work, something often needs to set the performance on fire, whether it be solo singing, fast tempi or musical effects. From the outset, it was clear that what was going to set this performance apart would be variety in dynamics. Zhang consistently built dynamics well within the music and enticed a great deal of dynamic variety from the players. In the first solo aria of the evening, this approach was conveyed especially well by tenor Miles Mykkanen, a Finnish-American singer who lived up to his reputation of having an infinite range of dynamics within his singing. Mykkanen communicated animatedly with the audience in his arias and recitatives, maneuvering through the vocal runs with accuracy.
Handel’s opera and oratorio solo arias were composed in an era when concerts sometimes resembled vocal fireworks competitions and singers were expected to spin off complicated coloratura singing at breakneck speeds. This compositional style was evident in the Part I soprano aria “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion,” which soprano Ellie Dehn sang with a clean sparkling sound, finding direction in the fast runs as she raced up and down to high B-flats. Dehn also showed a particularly light and accurate high range in singing the “angel recitatives” conveying the angelic appearance to the shepherds, announcing “good tidings of great joy.”
Bass-baritone Nicholas Newton showed why he is garnering a great deal of attention as an up-and-coming singer, setting the stage well in solos depicting shaking the sea and the dry land, and darkness covering the earth. Newton interacted with the audience most effectively in the crowd-pleasing Part III aria “The trumpet shall sound,” expertly accompanied by trumpeter Garth Greenup. Mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani rounded out the vocal quartet, effectively finessing arias that were in some cases composed for counter-tenor or castrato voice. Lahyani took a particularly pastoral approach to the verses from Isaiah in the aria “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,” gracefully accompanied by solo violinist Eric Wyrick, cellist Jonathan Spitz, bassist Ha Young Jung, bassoonist Robert Wagner, and organist Wolinsky.
With the cuts in this production, what was retained in Part II was mostly choral, and the Montclair State University Singers, prepared by Heather J. Buchanan, consistently showed solid preparation in lightness and accuracy. Choral runs were clean and performed with a very forward vocal sound, and the same dynamic contrasts which marked the solos and instrumental numbers were evident in the work’s choruses. The University Singers sang with particular precision in the trickier sections of “His yoke is easy” and “All we like sheep have gone astray.”
Messiah contains a diversity of musical styles, from recalling the Renaissance motet to the vocal pyrotechnics of 18th-century opera. In Friday night’s concert, Zhang and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra found a wide range of approaches to the work, and despite the number of cut sections, the quality of performance and musical creativity presented Handel’s timeless classic oratorio cohesively.
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra will present its next Princeton performance on Friday, January 6 at 8 p.m. Conducted by Xian Zhang, this concert will feature pianist Daniil Trifonov and works of Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss. Ticket information about this concert can be found at njsymphony.org.