CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 10 DECEMBER 2009
George Frideric Handel: Messiah, OWV 56. (Mary Wilson, sop.; Anthony Roth Costanzo, counter-ten.; Alek Shrader, ten.; John Relyea, bass-bar.; Clev. Orchestra Chamber Chorus; Robert Porco, cond.)
There was a time when hoop skirts were a threat to one's health and well-being. In 1713, a letter in Richard Steele's paper The Guardian named scuffed shins and toppled goods among the costs of the fashion. "I saw a young lady fall down the other day;" it continued, "and believe me, sir, she very much resembled an overturned bell without a clapper."
Hoop skirts were also a threat to the economics of arts performances. The more space any one ticket-buyer occupies, the fewer ticket-buyers can fit in the auditorium; and hoops take up lots of room. So when Handel's Messiah received its premiere at a 1742 benefit concert, the newspaper notice enjoined women to "come without Hoops, as it will greatly encrease the Charity, by making Room for more company."
A hoop skirt is a pretty rare sight these days, but Handel's oratorio continues to attract crowds. The audience at Thursday evening's Cleveland Orchestra Messiah was fairly sizable despite temperatures that had dropped into the teens. Those who braved the cold enjoyed Robert Porco's engaging but subdued reading of Handel's oratorio, featuring a compact instrumental ensemble and the 59-member Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus.
Porco's choral singers acquitted themselves very admirably. When Porco pushed the tempo, however, details sometimes got lost in the hall. From my vantage point, many of the sixteenth notes in "And He shall purify" and "For unto us" blurred and vanished. But the chorus executed the intricate counterpoint of "And with his stripes," the dramatic contrasts of "Since by man came death," and the grandiose rhetoric of the "Hallelujah" with confident clarity.
Porco's quartet of soloists was equally reliable. Alek Shrader's tenor voice is relatively light, and his opening numbers—"Comfort ye" and "Ev'ry valley"—had a conversational quality that may have surprised those accustomed to a more assertive approach. But Shrader came into his own in "Behold, and see," which elicited the listener's pity without pleading for it. Bass-baritone John Relyea's thundering vocal performance redeemed an otherwise lackluster version of the Part 3 aria "The trumpet shall sound." Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo's "He was despised" showcased his sound musical and theatrical instincts. Soprano Mary Wilson's lucid, crisp singing, attractively free of affectation, made "I know that my Redeemer liveth" a thing of serene and striking beauty.
Despite the merits of this Cleveland Orchestra Messiah, you can certainly find more dynamic and colorful versions of Handel's masterwork on disc. But, for many, Messiah fulfills needs that are as much social as they are musical. How else to explain the persistence of the distracting custom—observed Thursday evening—of standing during the "Hallelujah" Chorus? The late Robert Shaw had the right idea: requesting in program booklets and pre-concert announcements that audience members remain seated. I look forward to the day when this tradition of standing takes its place in history's gallery of discarded encumbrances—right down the aisle from the hoop skirt.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
Considered Opinions Main Page
Considered Opinions Archive
Considered Opinions Podcast