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Handel’s Messiah: The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys with Concert Royal


                                by Deirdre Donovan


The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys with Concert Royal resurrected Handel’s grand oratorio for the holidays.  And those in the audience at Saint Thomas Church were treated to an exquisite presentation of the master’s most celebrated composition.


Before commenting on the performance itself, it is well worth noting The Messiah’s fascinating history, which was included in the program notes. Was it an easy birth for The Messiah?  Not at all.  But Handel knew which way the wind was blowing in England in the late 1720s when he turned from writing operas to oratorios.  The English aristocracy had wearied of opera’s theatricality and yearned for something totally fresh.  Handel responded to this “sea change” by experimenting with the oratorio form for the next decade or so.  And his experimentation paid off.  Many musical historians believe that Handel created his grand oratorio in a “divine rapture” that began on August 22, 1741 and finished on September 12.  It had an auspicious debut in Dublin, Ireland in April 13, 1742.  However, it sparked much controversy the following year in London at its premiere in March 1743.  It seems that London’s pious element took Handel to task for blurring the lines between religion and theater.   And Handel only trumped these religious zealots in 1750 when, as a trustee of the Foundling Hospital, he generously began presenting his Messiah as an annual tradition for the institution.

Does Handel’s Messiah still delight audiences today? Well, let’s just say that the faces of the ticketholders at Saint Thomas Church were glowing as brightly as candles throughout the performance.  But then this oratorio recounts the greatest story ever told, and spans the whole life and death of Christ and his promise of mankind’s redemption.


In case you need a refresher on Handel’s masterpiece, the concert is divided into three parts (Part One: God’s Plan to Redeem Mankind;” Part Two: The Redemption; Part Three:  An Anthem for Forgiveness and for the Defeat of Death).  Happily, the three-hour concert never dragged but gained power with each unfolding scene.  But what made the presentation unforgettable were the sterling talents of the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys teamed up with the Concert Royal ensemble.  Soprano Elizabeth Weisberg, Mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle, tenor Isaiah Bell, and bass David Grogan, sang the various ariosos, airs, and recitatives with verve.  And guest conductor Gary Thor Wedow held the baton with a light hand that brought out the multiple nuances of the piece.


The famous overture was cleanly rendered by Bell.  And as he sung the opening lines, the audience completely hushed to savor each word once spoken by the ancient prophet Isaiah: “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  Bell then smoothly segued into those miraculous lines:  “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low: the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.”  Bell’s pitch-perfect voice was mesmerizing--and not a single cough sounded from the audience during his solo.  


If there’s nothing earth-shatteringly new that can be said about this (justifiably) celebrated work, there were still many standout moments during the concert.  And, far and away, the Hallelujah chorus was the capstone.  Even if you have heard it sung countless times on recordings, that moment when the audience (following in the old tradition) rose from their pews in Saint Thomas to hear it afresh was exhilarating.  Say what you will, the poetic force of the Hallelujah chorus is second-to-none.


While some audience members left immediately after the Hallelujah chorus faded out, those who remained were mighty glad they did.  For who would want to miss the musical richness contained in the third part of the oratorio?  In turns, Weisberg, Grogan, and Bragle sang a medley of airs and recitatives that illuminated the interlocking themes of eternal life, the Day of Judgment, and the final conquest of sin.  These solos were punctuated by a potent three-line duet by Bragle and Bell (“O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?  The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.”)  The concert wrapped up on a triumphant note as the chorus chimed in with the finale, “The Acclamation of the Messiah.” 


Indeed Handel’s Messiah never grows old.  And as sublimely presented by the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys with the Concert Royal, it had both the freshness of a new Christmas tree and the patina of a two century-old tradition.  Handel would have approved.


Handel’s Messiah

Two performances only on December 8th and 10th.

At Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, One West 53rd Street, Manhattan.

Review based on December 8th performance.

Running Time:  3 hours with 15-minute intermission.

For more information on Concerts at Saint Thomas, visit