The first of this year’s Handel and Haydn Society’s Messiah programs wowed the audience under the spell of guest conductor, Václav Luks, an energetic musical polymath; the founder of Collegium 1724 in Prague, conductor, harpsichordist and trumpet player, fully embodied the work. Though written during an inspired 24 days in the late summer of 1741, intended as an Easter oratorio, and indeed debuted the next April in Dublin, Messiah has long been a Christmas favorite. Indeed, it is embedded in the soul of H + H, which performed the Hallelujah chorus in its inaugural concert back in 1815, provided the American premiere of the whole work in 1818 and has annually delighted audiences with Messiah since 1854. This year’s event is no different.
The full-house happily included many children and young people, as well as the usual older crowd. Four accomplished, well-matched soloists—soprano Amanda Forsythe, contralto Avery Amereau, tenor Ben Bliss and bass-baritone Kevin Deas, elaborated on the themes carried by the chorus. Luks’s sprightly traversal left the audience and, occasionally, the chorus, orchestra and even soloists breathless. That said, the effect was riveting.
In this season’s exuberant offering the orchestra included 29 plus 30 chorus members—close to the number of musicians in the 1742 premiere (in a much smaller space), but far less than the casts of hundreds or even thousands in the late 19th Century performances. The four sought-after and comely soloists lived up to their reputations throughout, and the superb chorus had many in the audience barely containing themselves from joining in.
Messiah’s 53 numbers naturally fall into three sections: the birth of Jesus and prophecies concerning his arrival, the crucifixion and redemption, and a final focus on the soul and making sense of death. Charles Jennens’s libretto, assembled from the Old and New Testament, propels the work forward with vivid imagery and narrative coherence.
Anticipation and excitement dominate Part 1, which in this performance communicated passion and intensity. Following the Overture, Bliss’s rendition of the opening recitative and the air, “Every Valley,” showcased his sonorous tenor and persuasive persona. The chorus seamlessly linked this portion and other solos to the depth of Messiah. While often sung by bass, Section 6, “But Who May Abide,” Handel originally specified for alto, and here Amereau contributed her rich contralto. As to Deas, his resonant voice mesmerized and virtually shook the house. Preeminent for rich bass-baritone, he anchored the inevitability of Messiah’s embedded story. Forsythe, long recognized for her peerless baroque interpretations, did not disappoint, with several recitatives and her pure version of “Rejoice Greatly.” Other captivating moments in Part 1 included the gorgeous melodies for the chorus: “He Shall Purify,” “For Unto Us,” and “His Yoke is Easy.”
Part 2 becomes less optimistic with a focus on inevitable, profound loss, yet with redemptive hope. After transmitting the fear inherent in the story, H + H conquered in the “Hallelujah” Chorus, for which almost the whole audience took to its feet. And in Part 3, “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” with Deas’s incandescently ominous phrasing and trumpeter John Thiessen’s solo annunciation, took our breath away.
From timpanist Jonathan Hess, bassoonist Andrew Schwartz, basses and harpsichord to the superb strings, oboes and trumpets, the players deserve kudos for anchoring the work seamlessly. Luks’s animated, charismatic and idiosyncratic style imparted both the depth and ebullient joy. As H + H’s website notes, this is Boston’s must-see Messiah. You will be hard pressed to find a seat for Saturday’s and Sunday’s reprises. After the three-hour concert and the thunderous applause that followed, I strolled to my car, parked about a mile away from Symphony Hall, humming all the way.