Ask any professional musician what is the most performed classical work of all time, and chances are they will tell you it is George Frideric Handel's Messiah. But you're not home yet. The follow-up question remains: which version?
For well over two centuries, a cottage industry in musicology has sought to identify all the variants. Baroque music was made to order for performance resources available, and tailored for each subsequent occasion. When Messiah became a hit shortly after its premiere in 1742, Handel revived it often, writing new pieces, dropping others, and reassigning solos depending on the talents available. And the variations on the theme of Messiah didn't stop at the end of the composer's life.
Take the case of Mozart's arrangement, which was performed at Disney Hall on Sunday, December 12, by the Master Chorale under the direction of Grant Gershon. In 1789, thirty years after Handel's death, a well-connected antiquarian music lover in the Austrian court, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, induced a cash-strapped Mozart to "update" Handel's masterpiece to the new symphonic dimensions of the time. In a year of financial worries, one also notably short on original compositions by the composer, Mozart was only too willing to comply.
What resulted was a Messiah whose refining fires sound like their hell-and-brimstone counterparts in Don Giovanni, composed just a year before. The modern listener finds himself in a stylistic time-warp, with sinewy clarinets and steely flutes, not to mention bassoons, French horns and trombones (most of them perfected well after Handel's death) augmenting the earlier composer's strings and accompanying keyboard. Ornamental accents by the wind instruments added exotic colors and the other instruments a richer layering to Handel's lean scoring.
Baroque purists may have wished they stayed home with an aspirin for their comfort ye's, but for those of us with a sense of musical adventure, the ride was a heady one, with its own unique charms. Mozart's symphonic concept has certain benefits: it matches in volume the Master Chorale's large ensemble of 112 richly toned singers and it is in sonic scale with the Disney Hall's 2,200 seats -- all of which, by the way, appeared filled on this evening.
It would be an understatement to declare that Gershon has a way with singing words. Messiah has survived the under-rehearsed interpretation of many a church choir, but to hear this master conductor reveal its choral potential was a joy forever. Take for instance the waltz-like jubilation of "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed", the otherworldly hush of "And he shall purify", and the gleefulness of "For unto us a child is born" -- all sounding as freshly articulated by our choristers as if newly minted.
On this evening there would be many more insights in Gershon's choral word-painting: the ethereal contemplation of "And with his stripes", emphasizing healing over the usual stabbing stripes; the bouncing wool-balls of "All we like sheep", with Mozart's clarinet and flutes reinforcing the Chorale's depiction of willful and heedless humanity; "His yoke is easy, and His burthen is light" defying the force of gravity like larks ascending; "He hath borne our griefs" in shivering choral dissonances; "He trusted in God" with the sharp accents of betrayal, especially in the words "de-LIV-ered him"; "Lift up your heads" with its question of "Who is the King of glory?" repeated in ever more insistent demands; "Their sound is gone out to the ends of the world" exploding on the word "world" like bursting fireworks; the marcato accents of "Let us break their bonds asunder" sounding like cracking glass shards; and the final "Amen" coda, often anticlimactic in lesser hands, but with Gershon beginning it in hushed mystery and working it inexorably into a magisterial apotheosis.
The Chorale's soloists came from within its own ranks. All are locally trained Southern California natives, but that is where their similarities ceased. It is perhaps a measure of the ensemble's accomplishment that it manages such a good blend in full grouping, given the disparities in vocal colorations and execution of its component soloists on this occasion.
Deborah Mayhan's creamy soprano, with its rapid, fluttery vibrato and nice trill, was well suited to her early angelic annunciations and the later reassurances of "I know that my Redeemer liveth." She was adequate enough also in the more dramatic passages of the second part to carry the storyline.
Mezzo soprano Tracy Van Fleet's tone was, on this occasion, dry and nasal, her lack of resonance sounding almost like a falsetto countertenor. With additional pitch and control problems, on perhaps an off night, her renditions of "He was despised" and "O death, where is thy sting?" had insufficient vocal strength and color for dramatic conviction.
Jon Lee Keenan possesses a pleasant tenor voice, but the full resonance of the still young singer has yet to emerge. He handled his rapid passages well, as in "Ev'ry valley shall be exalted", but the bravura ring needed in arias like "Thou shalt break them" was missing. We can also hold Mozart accountable for miscasting a tenor for the usual soprano in "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion." The needed brilliance of a high soprano's coloratura filigree is lost on a tenor.
The most satisfying performance came from bass Steve Pence, whose "But who may abide" was noble in bearing, his "The people that walked in darkness" appropriately dusky and flexible in its wanderings. Pence's "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?" agitated the depths; his "The trumpet shall sound" stirred the heights.
The performance was a brilliant choral accomplishment by the Master Chorale and music director Grant Gershon. He and his singers have made something of a specialty of this Mozart-accented Messiah, the Chorale having sung it seven years ago with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at UCLA's Royce Hall. In those intervening years the ensemble's vocal sound and interpretive insights have only deepened.
While the Mozart version should not replace Handel's original smaller-scaled conception as a standard performance practice, this memorable Messiah does give us a rare and intriguing insight into one genius's homage to another's enduring masterpiece.
ABOVE PHOTOS: Ken Hiveley Photography
Rodney Punt can be reached at Rodney@artspacifica.net.