by Deirdre Donovan
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
performances only on December 8th and 10th.
Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, One West 53rd Street, Manhattan.
based on December 8th performance.
Time: 3 hours with 15-minute intermission.
more information on Concerts at Saint Thomas, visit