Music Review

Christophers saves ‘Messiah’ from predictability

Harry Christophers of the Handel and Haydn Society. Harry Christophers of the Handel and Haydn Society. (File 2007)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / December 7, 2009

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The inextricable bond between “Messiah’’ and the Christmas season presents listeners with a dilemma. Handel’s oratorio gets a guaranteed hearing - indeed, many hearings - every year. But the sheer predictability of its appearance means that performances of “Messiah’’ are in constant danger of becoming just another trapping of the season, and our appreciation of them about as fresh last night’s eggnog, or another Christmas sweater.

So it was significant that Harry Christophers chose to make his first appearance as music director of the Handel and Haydn Society with “Messiah’’ Friday night. This is a piece many conductors do out of a sense of duty, or pass off to a guest. Not so Christophers, who told the Globe earlier this year that he plans to conduct the piece himself every year.

To say the least, he’s off to a promising start. Conducting with broad, sweeping gestures, he led a vital performance that bristled with energy and defied any sense of routine. Familiar moments that often pass without notice had coherence and shape, as did the larger paragraphs of individual movements.

He was also keenly attuned to the theological content of each of the work’s three parts. The first, which deals largely with Christ’s advent and birth, unfolded at a gentle, leisurely pace, which made the extra intensity in Part II - the passion and resurrection - especially lucid. Suddenly there were greater contrasts of dynamics and tempo, and the chorus added bracingly clear diction.

About the only place where Christophers’s strategy didn’t work, oddly, was in the “Hallelujah’’ chorus. (For those keeping score, a little more than half the audience stood, though some seemed baffled by the practice.) Here the abrupt shifts between loud and soft made this iconic moment sound mannered instead of dramatic. Much better was the closing “Amen,’’ which was an unmitigated triumph.

Each of the soloists had something distinct to offer. Tenor Tom Randle and baritone Matthew Brook both had powerful, robust voices that served them well at the most dramatic moments. Soprano Suzie LeBlanc and countertenor Daniel Taylor sounded ethereal and pure, and though both had occasional trouble projecting, they were riveting in their most important arias.

The orchestra had a few rough spots but played vigorously throughout. But the real star of “Messiah’’ is the chorus, and H&H’s did brilliantly, singing with an ideal combination of power and transparency. They deserved, and got, the longest and loudest recognition at the end.

HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY Harry Christophers, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, Friday night

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