December 20, 2023

New Jersey Symphony Brings Handel’s “Messiah” to Richardson Auditorium

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony returned to Richardson Auditorium this past weekend for the ensemble’s annual presentation of George Frideric Handel’s always-popular oratorio Messiah. Conducted by noted baroque specialist Nicholas McGegan, the spirited performance last Friday night brought together a stylistic chamber orchestra, youthful chorus, and four vocal soloists.

Messiah is comprised of nearly 50 choruses, recitatives, and solos or duets tracing the life of Christ in three distinct parts. McGegan, known for the speed and clarity of his baroque music performances, led the Symphony and Montclair State University Singers in all but a handful of the numbers in a concise 2½ hours of buoyant instrumental playing, clean choral singing, and lyrical vocal solos. His approach to the work, which he has conducted many times, emphasized the theatricality of the biblical story, as well as the charm and elegance of the 18th century.

As with most oratorios of its era, Messiah opened with an instrumental “Overture.” In Friday night’s performance, the musicians maintained crisp rhythms, with sharply-played double-dotted notes keeping the pace of the music moving forward. McGegan maintained a quick but unhurried tempo, with a lean orchestral fugue setting the stage for what was to come.

The first singer heard from the vocal quartet was tenor Thomas Cooley, who is well experienced in works from the baroque and classical eras. Cooley demonstrated this expertise by taking his time on the ornaments inherent in this music, and sang the comforting Part I recitative text delicately. He executed vocal runs with ease with imaginative phrasing and changed characters well to fit the aria and story.

Among Handel’s numerous revisions of Messiah were the inclusion of arias set for the renowned castrato Guadagni, one of a number of “superstar” singers in Europe at the time. McGegan acknowledged Handel’s intentions with the casting of countertenor Key’mon W. Murrah to perform the alto recitatives and arias. With smooth long melodic lines and a powerful top register, Murrah maneuvered coloratura runs with ease, adding complex ornaments reaching well above the notes on the page. In addition, he exhibited sensitive phrase direction and was well matched with soprano Sherezade Panthaki in a duet closing Part I of the oratorio.

Soprano Panthaki was a tour de force as a performer, conveying the “angel” recitatives with a powerful sound and bell-like top register. The soprano signature aria of Messiah is “Rejoice greatly,” which Panthaki delivered with seemingly endless breath control and ornaments racing well above the notated staff. In addition, she displayed a particularly translucent sound with little vibrato when singing “How Beautiful Are the Feet of Them that Preach the Gospel of Peace,” an aria not always performed in Messiah productions.

The fourth soloist, baritone Tyler Duncan, was a commanding and theatrical presence onstage. When he sang “Thus saith the Lord,” the audience snapped to attention, and he showed a great deal of personality in the always popular “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” expertly accompanied by trumpeter Anderson Romero. Both Duncan and McGegan were definitely aiming for contrasts in the music, with Duncan opening a dramatic Part I aria almost imperceptibly, as if telling a secret about the “people that walked in darkness.”

What set oratorios apart from other musical genres in the 18th century was the extensive use of chorus. Friday night’s concert featured a clear and refreshing sound from the Montclair State University Singers, prepared by conductor Heather J. Buchanan. Throughout the performance, it was evident that choral runs had been well drilled and the choral sound was well matched across sections. The bass section was especially strong, tenors were particularly light, and all choristers were aided by McGegan keeping articulation short, both for dramatic effect and ease of singing over the long concert period.

The chamber-sized New Jersey Symphony maintained a consistently precise accompaniment to choral and solo numbers. The ensemble had been pared down from its usual symphonic roster for this performance, with 15 violins and a handful of each of the other strings. Most busy throughout the concert were principal cellist Jonathan Spitz, principal bassist Ha Young Jung, and keyboard player Steven Ryan doubling on harpsichord and organ, comprising a continuo accompanying most of the recitatives and providing a graceful backdrop to the singing. Oboists Robert Ingliss and Andrew Adelson added an elegant color to the orchestral palette, and timpanist David Fein delivered percussive punctuation when needed. With the combined crisp playing and singing, the perennial favorite Messiah was presented to a sold-out house at Richardson, with a performance both historically informed and musically nuanced to solidify the holiday season.

New Jersey Symphony will present its next Princeton concert on Friday, January 12 at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Conducted by Music Director Xian Zhang, this performance will feature guest violinist Augustin Hadelich and music of Beethoven and Mussorgsky. Ticket information can be obtained by visiting