The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Messiah for Easter - March 20, 2016
by Diane Boul
If you’ve ever attended a concert that was satisfying on many levels, you’ll understand when I say how exciting that is! Such was the case with Camerata California’s presentation of George Frideric Handel’s Easter Messiah presented by the Chamber Choir with Soloists and the VITA (Vocal & Instrumental Teaching Artist) Academy Orchestra, conducted by Pete Nowlen. What a wonderful way to welcome spring and to commemorate the Easter Season! The setting was the beautiful, intimate First United Methodist Church in Sacramento, which provided the perfect ambience for this Messiah. This type of venue with a chamber group gives one the feeling that the audience is really important, like being honored guests at the home of royalty. (However, there wouldn’t have been a photographer in the front row taking pictures during the entire program to the distraction of all; maybe she was hired.) The program began with a brief introduction by Director/Conductor Pete Nowlen who gave a little history of Georg Friedrich Händel and his contemporaries, as well as the setting of the premiere of the Messiah in Dublin in 1742. Händel and Johann Sebastian Bach, two of the most important composers of the Baroque period, were born a month apart in 1685 in Germany, only about 80 miles apart; but they lived separate lives, and they never did meet. Both were offered the position of organist at St. Mary’s in Lübeck, Germany, to follow the pre-eminent organist/composer, Dietrich Buxtehude, but both turned down the offer; neither one wanted to marry his daughter, and that was a condition for the position. Händel never married and spent the rest of his life in England, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1726 and anglicizing his name to George Frideric Handel.
After Handel’s opera-composing heyday had essentially ended, he wrote Messiah in an astonishing 24 days. It premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742, to an audience of 700 people, the proceeds of ₤400 going to charity. One such charity was toward payment of debts for several hundred jailed debtors. The unknown forces in Dublin inspired the setting of this performance. Not knowing if he would find enough strong musicians, he composed for a string ensemble with trumpets and timpani, and 16 singers including both female and boy sopranos. (I’ve also read “…a 26-member chamber choir with soloists….” and “… 16 men and 16 boys….”) Apparently, the soloists weren’t distinct from the choristers and the solos were rarely sung by fewer than six soloists. Upon auditioning one “outstanding” Dublin bass named Janson, after repeated attempts, the poor man failed so egregiously, that Handel let loose his great bear upon him; and after swearing in four or five languages, cried out in broken English: Handel: "You shcauntrel [scoundrel]! tit not you dell me dat you could sing at soite [sight]?" Janson: "Yes, sir, and so I can, but not at first sight." [Source: English music historian Dr. Charles Burney] The success of Messiah in Dublin was immediate and resounding, and the work has never been out of the repertory since.
The structure of Messiah follows the liturgical year: Part I, with prophecies by Isaiah and others, corresponds with Advent, Christmas and the life of Jesus; Part II concentrates on the Passion (Lent, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost) and ends with the "Hallelujah" chorus; Part III deals with the end of time and covers the resurrection of the dead and Christ's glorification in heaven. In keeping with the season, Parts II and III were performed on this particular evening.
From the program it may appear that there are a few movements missing (Handel did make a few changes and additions in subsequent years, as, apparently, did others), but in his introduction, Nowlen said they were committed to performing the original 1742 version of Messiah, including using approximately the original number of vocalists and instrumentalists. Handel did not intend for Messiah to be done with a cast of thousands; before the 19th and 20th centuries, it was important to maintain the original Dublin inspiration. Since then Messiah has had many arrangements. Recently, I heard of a 2016 large-scale arrangement sung mezzo-forte or softer. Imagine that!!
This evening’s musical performance began with the “Sinfonia,” the introductory instrumental from Part I of Messiah. Part II has no introduction, so using the “Sinfonia” made for a smooth transition into the first Part II chorus, ”Behold the Lamb of God.” With movements 22–42 in 7 scenes, Part II ended with the Hallelujah Chorus (which is not a movement in Part 1, as we are used to hearing.) Part III, with movements 43–47 in 4 scenes, was heard after the intermission.
(Click here to view the entire program in a separate window.)
Even before the first note of the “Sinfonia,” with Nowlen’s warmly enthusiastic and interesting introduction, the audience knew that this was going to be an uplifting experience. This mood prevailed throughout the performance with no let-down. Very impressive!
The chamber choir took the spotlight from the orchestra with “Behold the Lamb of God.” They must have had a good warm-up, because they lost no time in entertaining us with strong singing, good balance between the voices, excellent articulation and diction. It seems so much more personal when the choir makes the text understandable to the audience rather than keeping it to themselves with poor diction. This was true throughout the performance.
There were many highlights in the choir’s presentation. There was sureness in their singing; they were well-rehearsed. Their melismas in the playful “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray” were solid, rhythmic, and at tempo. There was no lagging; their breath support was excellent. I also really enjoyed the canon, “He Trusted in God,” which started with the basses, eventually including the entire chorus; the balance was good.
“Lift up Your Heads” is one of my favorite movements. Its joyfulness tells of the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. I thought the women overpowered the men a bit. Another strong tenor and one more strong bass would have helped. Then, bass soloist, Daniel Yoder, launched the choir into the exuberant, “Let Us Break Their Bonds.” It was fast and furious, maybe a bit too frenetic at first. The tempo, the staccati, and all the melismatic passages made for a very exciting piece.
“Hallelujah,” as expected, was a highlight with all singers and instrumentalists at their peak. Although I’ve sung and listened to this chorus many times, this was one of the most enjoyable, because it was so precisely executed with a spirit that was unmatched. A robust sound came from this small choir and soloists—and everyone in the audience stood. I also enjoyed “Since by Man Came Death,” a song promising resurrection and redemption for all. The choir’s pianissimos were so beautiful. The contrasts in tempi and dynamics really sold this section.
The soloists carried almost half of the libretto, and they did not disappoint. For the most part they all sang with excellent expression, diction, and understandable phrasing. There were some outstanding examples.
Mezzo-soprano, Kathleen Moss, sang with a deep, mellow, almost contralto strength as she spat, “He was despised, despised and rejected, rejected of men ….” Really sad! “Thou Art Gone up on High” showed her outstanding breath support. Obviously, Handel wanted us to pay attention to specific words.
Norman DeVol, tenor soloist, made his vocal presence immediately known in the short, strong recitative, “All They That See Him.” DeVol couldn’t rest much after that, but his strength was uniform throughout the next four consecutive pieces. Due to his expression, his physical presence, and his excellent diction, he was able to tell us the story, “He was cut off out of the land of the living…but thou didst not leave his soul in hell.” And, he really enjoyed his final aria, “Thou Shalt Break Them,” and we enjoyed those lovely melismas.
Soprano, Ave DeLara, gave us the beautiful aria, “How Beautiful Are the Feet of Them (that preach the gospel of peace ….).” I loved how she just touched the very high notes before the downbeat. Her vocal artistry and athleticism were much appreciated. I thought her phrasing in “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” was exceptional; it made the text very clear.
Daniel Yoder, a bass soloist I’ve heard many times, really took advantage of the powerful moments in the movements that he sang. In the allegro aria, “Why do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together?” the words leapt from his mouth to our ears, insistently asking, “Why do the people imagine a vain thing?” This was the springboard for the choir’s, “Let Us Break Their Bonds.” Yoder’s final recitative, “Behold, I Tell You a Mystery” and the aria, “The Trumpet Shall Sound” brought the oratorio to a near end with joy and excitement, appropriate for depicting the Day of Judgment and resurrection of all. As Yoder told me after the show, “It’s in the lyrics. If you read the lyrics, you can’t fail to express it joyfully.”
I have no experience playing stringed instruments, but I know that the bow has many difficult techniques, and the list of bowing terms is long: spiccato, flying spiccato, up bow staccato, son filé, sautille, etc. etc. For any musician to master playing these instruments and then to master the difficult Messiah is a wonder. My lack of expertise can’t say how well these young violinists, violists, or cellists of VITA Academy executed their bowing techniques, but I heard nothing out of tune, nothing difficult to listen to, and no dragging tempi. They followed modulation and other directions from conductor Nowlen and the overall sound seemed to match the expression and mood of the movements and the singers. Many of the movements are very fast, but the orchestra was strong, supportive, and not too loud throughout. I think they did an outstanding job. I would pay to hear them again. The program ended with “Worthy is the Lamb/Blessing and Honor/Amen,” a summary of the story that was just told, with the complete ensemble giving a final burst of energy to this climactic end. Lovely!! Ludwig van Beethoven is said to have exclaimed, "Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived... I would uncover my head and kneel down on his tomb." [Source: Edward Schulz, "A Day with Beethoven", The Harmonicum (1824)] Who better to trust than Beethoven? After a long and warm standing ovation, we all sang “Happy Birthday” to Betsy Collins, continuo player, who was celebrating an especially momentous year. Following was an acknowledgement to Mary Wesley, General Director, Board President, and Founder of Camerata California.
Thank you, Mary, for bringing together this wonderful group of musicians. Any qualified vocalist or instrumentalist would be proud to be a part of Camerata California. Amateurs and professionals alike could learn a lot from this group.