This weekend’s performances of George Frideric Handel’s great oratorio “Messiah” mark the intersection of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s regular subscription concerts and its holiday offerings. Friday night’s performance offered enjoyment for regular and occasional patrons, for lovers of choral music in general and for those for whom hearing this masterpiece is an important part of the Christmas season.
“Messiah” tells the story of Jesus obliquely, from prophesies of his birth through the promises of the Second Coming. Librettist Charles Jennens, an eccentric patron of the arts and amateur Bible scholar, put together an inspired collection of verses from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that never refer to Jesus by name, but make clear a firm belief in Christ’s divinity. Handel added his musical genius (listen to the angels’ wings beating in “Glory to God,” and to the way they flutter away at the chorus’s end) to make it a tour de force.
The oratorio was intended for performance at Easter, but has become a regular offering at Christmas. It works just fine in either season.
The SLSO performed “Messiah” with an appropriately small orchestra and 73 members of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. The texts were not projected, but between the program notes and the singers’ generally excellent diction, that wasn’t a problem.
Conductor Matthew Halls began his career as an early music specialist, and his zippy tempos and general lightness of touch reflect that background. Most of the ornamentation was well-considered; the communication between Halls and his forces never flagged. “Messiah” is a long work, but this performance never dragged.
Among the four soloists — soprano Karina Gauvin, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, tenor Nicholas Phan, and baritone William Berger — Berger, making his SLSO debut, was a particular standout. His is a rich, well-produced voice, and he sings with feeling and understanding.
Szabó was assigned the Part I aria “But who may abide the day of His coming,” which may be done by soprano or mezzo but is usually taken by the bass, and made it her own. Like her colleagues, she offered an attractive sound and great coloratura.
The usually excellent Phan seemed to be having some problems with vocal roughness and odd choices for taking breaths in the first half, but sounded like himself in the second.
Gauvin had a tendency to skate along the lower side of the pitch, particularly in Part I, but improved greatly by “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”
There was magnificent work from the musicians of Amy Kaiser’s well-trained chorus; they sang with a fine blend, accuracy and scrupulously clean runs, unfazed by Halls’ occasionally breakneck tempos.
The musicians of the SLSO were terrific in this quintessential Baroque work; all hail associate principal trumpet Thomas Drake.
The large audience was justly enthusiastic about the performance. Unfortunately, some felt moved to sing along on the “Hallelujah” chorus, which was inappropriate and distracting.
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra: Handel’s “Messiah”
When • 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday • Where Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand Boulevard • How much $25-$90 • More info 314-534-1700; slso.org