’Tis the season. Messiahs, Messiahs everywhere.
Handel’s beloved oratorio turns up in versions big and small, in interpretations faux-romantic and authentically baroque, in churches and auditoriums, schools and malls. The quasi-sacred sprawl attracts amateurs here, professionals there. On Tuesday it drew celebrants to the not-so-holy portals of Lincoln Center for the first of five performances, courtesy of the New York Philharmonic.
If all had gone as planned, the guest on the podium would have been Emmanuelle Haïm, the French early music specialist. Official sources reported her “unable to travel to the US”, however, “due to a family illness”. In her place came a local early opera expert, Gary Thor Wedow.
He strived valiantly to establish a proper aura of intimacy in the 2,738-seat house. He sustained mostly buoyant, propulsive tempos, neat contrasts and nice clangy textures with a reduced orchestra, anachronistic string vibratos notwithstanding. He coaxed remarkably nimble, ultimately forceful contributions from the New York Choral Artists, a virtuosic 50-voice team trained by Joseph Flummerfelt. He encouraged his soloists, and chorus too, to execute elaborate linear embellishments that made dramatic as well as ornamental sense. (Well-articulated trills, unfortunately, were scarce.) He enforced contrapuntal discourse without distortion, and turned lavish cadenzas into climactic explorations. He even accompanied recitatives on a virginal that, though inaudible out front, stylishly supplemented organ and harpsichord in continuo flights.
One could note occasional pitch and ensemble lapses, not to mention an increasing tendency towards dynamic exaggeration. It hardly mattered in context. High communal spirits made even major blemishes seem minor.
The vocal quartet was dominated by Alastair Miles’ plangent, flexible and ever- authoritative bass. Kenneth Tarver mustered comparable sensitivity and generosity in the somewhat less imposing tenor solos. Tim Mead’s aggressive, open-throated countertenor turned shallow when his alto lines dipped low. Replacing Camilla Tilling, Layla Claire’s bright soprano vacillated between stridency and suavity.
Incidental intelligence: encountering the first strains of the “Hallelujah” chorus, the near-capacity audience rose in instant Pavlovian piety. Some traditions refuse to die, no matter how dubious, dutiful or disruptive. Humbug.