Bach Collegium San Diego Brings Compelling Period “Messiah” to The Conrad in La Jolla
There comes a time in a music critic’s career when the thought of reviewing yet another performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Handel’s Messiah incites anything but excitement. Is there really anything more to say about these two over programmed stalwart pillars of the august temple of music for chorus and orchestra?But when Ruben Valenzuela’s Bach Collegium San Diego announces another complete period Messiah performance, I immediately put it on my review calendar and eagerly await the day. Over the years Valenzuela’s approach has steadily rescued this beloved oratorio from its pious Victorian corpulence, refreshing it with a verve and emotional immediacy based on scrupulous attention to historical performance practice.
This season, I was eager to hear Sunday’s (December 22) Bach Collegium San Diego performance of Messiah in the Baker-Baum Concert Hall of the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla. The splendid acoustics of this modest-sized hall—it seats 500—with its high ceiling and clean sight lines have been evident since it first opened in April of this year.
For the most part, the hall showcased with remarkable clarity and presence the articulate definition and sparkling ensemble of the 35 Bach Collegium musicians—18 instrumentalists and 17 singers. What a pleasure to savor the immediate warmth of the period string ensemble, the subtle details of the vocal soloists’ textual interpretations, or even the delightful rasp of the theorbos plucking a sharply accented downbeat. My sole concern was the difficulty hearing in proper balance the chorus altos and tenors placed directly behind Valenzuela’s instrumentalists. Perhaps for their next outing at The Conrad, they will find a way to stage the singers on risers that place them just over the heads of the instrumentalists.
The oratorio’s musical interpretation at The Conrad was vintage Bach Collegium: Valenzuela’s absolute command on the podium; choral fugues taken at the speed of light while retaining astonishing clarity; florid vocal ornamentation that sounded relaxed and completely congruent with the text, and a persuasive dramatic drive that made the three hours of music rush by “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.”
Three of the vocal soloists gave this Messiah its winning character: baritone David Tinervia, mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker, and countertenor Jay Carter. New to the Bach Collegium’s Messiah productions, David Tinervia set the standard with his immaculate but heart-melting declamation of the opening recitative “Comfort Ye My People” followed by cascades of gleaming phrases that gloriously propelled “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted.” Although these movements are usually sung by a tenor, the rich, supple character of Tinervia’s baritone invited us into this Messiah journey with uncommon welcome. Later he unleashed seismic fury in his cataclysmic tear of bristling fioriture in “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage,” a traditional bass aria. That brilliant aria alone was worth the price of admission.
Mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker, a Bach Collegium regular, brought equal bravura declamation and conviction to the recitative “Thus Saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts,” usually sung by a bass. In the oratorio’s second section, she created with soul-stirring poignance the dramatic emotional crisis of Jesus’ crucifixion—to which Handel only alludes—in the recitative and aria “Thy Rebuke Has Broken His Heart” and “Behold and See.” And in the aria “Thou Shalt Break Them with a Rod of Iron,” her razor-edged gleam easily matched Tinervia’s stunning vocal fury.
The Baker-Baum acoustic proved exceptionally generous to Jay Carter’s bright countertenor, which never quite commanded the cavernous sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of San Diego, where I have heard the last four Bach Collegium Messiah productions. When he vehemently asserted “For He is Like a Refiner’s Fire,” I expected the room’s heat sensors to sound the alarm. His copious but never ostentatious ornamentation expanded the ebullience of the aria “O Thou that Tellest Good Tidings to Zion,” and the aria he shared with Smucker “He Shall Feed His Flock” was compelling enough to melt the most skeptical heart.
We did not hear soprano Véronique Filloux until that penultimate aria “If God be for Us, Who Can Be Against Us?” but her suave phrasing and sensuous soprano would have been welcome earlier in the oratorio. The precision of soprano Molly Quinn’s breakneck fioriture in “Rejoice Greatly” deserve credit in the Guiness Book of Records, but her vocal achievement remained admirable rather than compelling. Tenors David Kurtenbach and James Onstad did not probe the emotional riches of their arias to the same extent their colleagues did so admirably.
In spite of the less than ideal placement of the chorus, their sleek ensemble and dramatic energy ensured the oratorio’s unrelenting progression. Early in the second section, Valenzuela wisely fused three choral movements—“Surely He Hath Bourne Our Griefs,” “And with His Stripes We Are Healed,” and “All We Like Sheep”—into a single flowing tapestry, significantly compounding their dramatic effect. Appropriately, the chorus saved its most thrilling ensemble sonority for the concluding “Worthy Is the Lamb” and “Amen” choruses.
Enough praise cannot be given to the Bach Collegium’s stellar continuo players, notably Associate Music Director Michael Sponseller mastering both harpsichord and chamber organ. To the fleet cellists Heather Vorwerck and Alex, Greenbaum, and simmering contrabass Shanon Zusman, Artistic Director Ruben Valenzuela added the finesse and unexpected power of theorbo virtuosos Daniel Zuluaga and David Walker. Without the continuo‘s power and exquisite detail of the work, Messiah could not have soared to its rewarding heights.
Which brings us to Valenzuela’s astonishing vision of bringing a work so familiar—and for the most part distorted—back to its true self and unique power. Of course, truth be told, the inflation and distortion of Messiah started a generation of two after the composer’s demise. That Valenzuela had accomplished such a musical resuscitation here in San Diego, far from the vaunted urban centers of early music activity, only adds to the luster of his achievement.
Overall this was a fine performance, enhanced by the sparkling acoustics of the Baker-Baum concert hall. I was very disappointed, however, by the surprising employment of a baritone, not a tenor, for the oratorio’s first great aria, “Every valley shall be exalted.” The brilliance of a tenor’s voice rising above the orchestra to intone that verse and sustain the Italian baroque-style melisma in the upper register is one of the supreme thrills of Messiah (if done properly). More importantly Handel wrote this immortal aria specifically for a tenor – it’s not optional! Also, I felt that Jay Carter’s head-singing counter tenor was novel and interesting for one aria but oddly distracting after that. There was ample vocal talent among the altos present; we could have benefited from hearing more of them.
If you do a bit of Handel research, you will discover that when the composer repeated performances of his oratorios (and “Messiah” was repeated with some frequency in his lifetime), he would revise or substitute arias depending on the singers who were available. And if you are keen on following what the composer “intended”–never an easy thing to prove–you should remember that the countertenor and castrato voices were ones with which Handel worked with quite comfortably. To him, the countertenor was not as exotic a voice as it appears to be to you.
Excellant concert Thrilling