The Glorious- Messiah by Handel November 30th, 2019
I am actually not a Handel fan. When it comes to the Baroque I’d usually rather listen to Bach or Vivaldi. But Messiah, performed with all the passion and expert musicianship it deserves by the Pacific Chamber Orchestra this weekend, is an exception. When done well It is one of the most transporting musical and theatrical experiences I ever have – and it works its magic on me year after year.
On Saturday night I sat in rapt attention in the beautiful Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church and from the moment tenor sang his first plaintive words, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” I found myself hanging on every syllable and was completely swept away. In fact each of the solo voices was extraordinary in its beauty and power to move. The tenor, Ricardo Garcia was at times lilting and lyrical, at times intense with excitement. The bass, Ben Brady felt like the voice of God when singing about him. The alto, mezzo-soprano Silvie Jensen, was alternately piercing and dramatic and gentle and embracing. And the soprano, Marnie Breckenridge, soared, sometimes like a hummingbird and sometimes like an eagle carrying us higher and higher in sound and emotion.
The work in its entirety runs 3.5 hours and I thought the cuts that maestro Lawrence Kohl, PCO’s director, made to perform it at a reasonable 2.5 hours instead worked beautifully, bringing to my attention certain parts of the work that I realized I’d never really listened to before. Another successful innovation was having all four soloists singing together, “Their sound is gone out,” which is usually performed by the chorus. There is no place in the original version where we hear all four voices performing as a quartet and the effect here is thrilling.
I also appreciated hearing Messiah performed with a chamber rather than a symphony-sized orchestra. It allowed me to hear the instruments and their pairings with each other and with the voices more clearly which made the whole experience more intimate and personal.
Finally there was for me the surprise of an encore performance of the Hallelujah chorus with chorus members dispersed throughout the church and we, the audience members, invited to join in. As I plunged ahead with the illusion that I knew exactly what I was in for I was stunned by the complexity of it – nothing I ever fully appreciated before with the sound in front of me instead of all around me. It left me exhilarated and exhausted and – as the work is meant to do – in awe.
This is the second concert of the Pacific Chamber Orchestra I’ve attended, the first being an impressive performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Living in Marin as I do and with so much wonderful music happening in San Francisco and Berkeley it takes a lot to get me through the Caldecott Tunnel for a concert. This group of performers led with so much talent and enthusiasm by the ebullient Lawrence Kohl has what it takes. Their next program, aptly named “The Passionate” (Piazzola, Vivaldi, Telemann and Shostakovich) on March 21st and 22nd is not to be missed.