On December 20, 2018 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, Chicago, as part of a joyful holiday celebration to be repeated December 21st, 22nd and 23rd, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, under the baton of British conductor Matthew Halls, and the leadership of Chorus Director Duain Wolfe, performed a spectacular version of Handel’s beloved oratorio, Messiah. Featuring a superb group of soloists including Amanda Forsythe, soprano; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; and David Govertsen, bass- baritone, the presentation rocked a packed Orchestra Hall festooned by garlands and wreaths.
Messiah was composed in 1741 by George Frederic Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible and using the version of the Psalms taken from The Book Of Common Prayer. Although it has a structure similar to that of opera, it differs in that it is not presented in dramatic form, there is no direct speech and there are no typically operatic characters. The lyrics are definitely strongly religious in flavor; it has been succinctly called “an extended reflection on Christ as Messiah”.
The text begins with Prophecies, moves through the Annunciation to the shepherds, dwells on the Passion, covers the Resurrection of the dead and ends with Christ’s Ascension to glory. Eventually the piece became one of the most frequently performed choral works in Western music, often adapted for performance on a much grander scale than Handel intended. It is now generally agreed by scholars that there is not one definitive version of the masterpiece, but the experience offered this week in Chicago is a not-to-be-missed extraordinarily authentic rendition.
Under the nimble and expressive direction of Halls, the great Orchestra in string ensemble augmented by oboes, bassoons, trumpets, timpani, harpsichord and organ, shaped a historically nuanced musical tapestry while the mellifluous chorus sent out wave after wave of glorious sound, joined by the rich, evocative singing of the guest soloists. Hall’s direction was detailed, energetic, dramatic; the CSO members and chorus seemed to trade off between exalted and spirited, affirmative imagery; and the soloists soared in interpretive nuances.
Mezzo-soprano Cooke’s voice was strikingly warm and compassionate; she was spellbinding when intoning “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion”. Soprano Forsythe’s bell-like tones were heartbreakingly clear, particularly impassioned in “I know that my Redeemer liveth”. Tenor Phan’s executions were mellow, light, arched, and yet transformative as in “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted”. Govertsen, a member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, who stepped in at the last moment for the ill Joshua Hopkins, was commanding yet accessible, especially so in “The people that walked in darkness”.
The chorus moved cleanly and nimbly through the grand passages, presenting a focused and controlled set of dynamics, soft when needed, rousing when called for, culminating in the iconic “Hallelujah” chorus that brought everybody to their feet. Halls seemed exuberant as he shaped the line, texture and pace of this heart-stopping vision that lit up the holiday season. Kudos to the crisp, controlled, exemplary CSO strings, the harpsichord for its antique resonance, and all the fine instrumentation for a transcendent and perfectly blended experience.
For information and tickets to all the great programs of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, go to www.cso.org
All photos by Todd Rosenberg