Thursday, December 15, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Peter Schreier, Conductor. December 14, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 4 Left (Seat QQ11, $35.20).

Messiah (1741) by Handel (1685-1759).

Soloists: Ute Selbig, soprano; Nathalie Stutzmann, contralto, Steve Davislim, tenor, Peter Rose, Bass.
Westminster Symphonic Choir – Joe Miller, director.

Feeling very much in the holiday spirit, and because Goldstar had discounted tickets on sale, we decided during our Houston trip to purchase tickets for tonight’s concert.  Today wasn’t a gridlock alert day, but an accident in Lincoln Tunnel and a water main break in Weehawkin really caused Hudson crossing and mid-town traffic to snarl up.  While the path we took didn’t involve the reported 90-minute delays, the spillover traffic was so bad that it took us close to two hours to get to the parking garage.  After picking up tonight’s concert tickets and buying several opera tickets, we had just enough time for take-out at Ollie’s.

I don’t remember having heard any of the soloists before.  And Peter Schrier evidently was a tenor from his debut in 1959 to his retirement in 2005.  The choir comprises students at Westminster Choir College.  I must have heard them before since it collaborates with this orchestra quite frequently.

As familiar as the oratorio might be, I still find some new information about the composition that I didn’t know about.  First, while it was first performed in Dublin in April, 1742, it was written in London the year before.  During the first few decades of its existence, it was more an Easter tradition than today’s Christmas tradition.  There are many versions of this work, many of the revisions were put in by Handel to accommodate the specific needs of a performance.  I couldn’t quite get what the Program Notes say about tonight’s performance, but it seems several “less popular items” were taken out from the score.  I wonder which ones, and how long would the piece last if performed in its entirety.  Tonight’s concert was 2:40 hours with a 25-minute or so intermission.

The oratorio has three parts.  Part I relates to the prophecy of Christ’s coming and the circumstances of his birth; Part II to his life on earth; and Part III to the events surrounding the resurrection and the promise of redemption.

I was quite impressed after hearing the overture, the recitative and air by the tenor, and the first chorus by the choir.  The orchestra is small (6 first violins), the choir also relatively small at 70 or so members.  Nonetheless, the voices were clear and crisp, and the acoustics for this last row in the orchestra section was good.  The bass’s first appearance (a recitative) was also good.  Then the contralto came on, and that was a great disappointment.  I still remember the last time we heard this Chung Shu likened the bass as a singer with a rock in his mouth.  I am not that good with analogies, but the sound was strange it seemed to lodge in the singer’s throat unable to come out.

Unfortunately, the contralto didn’t improve as the evening progressed, and the crispness of the choir eventually began to make us wonder about the choir.  Anne pointed out the choir simply stressed the notes a bit too much (there is a musical term that for now escapes me.)  While this technique works wonders during the 16th note runs, it is not quite appropriate for the slower notes.  Since we are quibbling, the high notes (I think it gets to a G in this piece) also sounds a bit harsh at times.

The audience stood up for the Hallelujah Chorus (I was wondering if it would) at the conclusion of Part II.  Many people started to leave after that: some undoubtedly think it was a second intermission, but many never came back (or were not allowed to).  Which is too bad as the next Air (I know that my Redeemer liveth) was quite enjoyable.

For an orchestra like the New York Philharmonic, this must be a simple piece to perform.  And it started very well.  Surprising there were quite a few miscues later on.  Some of that may be due to working with a new conductor, some of that – I think – is simply due to lack of rehearsal time.

Perhaps it is the holiday spirit, and perhaps I feel forgiving towards a choir consisting of young men and women, I enjoyed the overall concert.

There will be altogether five performances.  I am quite impressed the concert is actually so popular, if tonight’s attendance was any indication.

New York Times has a review that is much kinder to the chorus than I am.  The reviewer made similar remarks about the contralto (impenetrable).  It also reminded me of how great the trumpets sounded.

Traffic was very light on our way home.  So I am glad we drove in.

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