CSO closes a pandemic year with a cut and middling “Messiah”

Fri Dec 17, 2021 at 11:27 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Nicholas McGegan conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Handel’s Messiah Thursday night. Photo: Laura Barisonzi

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has an intriguing if uneasy relationship with Handel’s Messiah

As traced by CSO archivist Frank Villella in this week’s program note, the orchestra collaborated with the Apollo Chorus (originally, Apollo Music Club) for over 70 years on Yuletide performances. That regular collaboration may explain why Handel’s oratorio took so long to appear on a CSO subscription series, which didn’t happen until 1957, under Fritz Reiner.

After that, there was a 27-year interregnum until music director Sir Georg Solti surprised many with a keenly dramatic and historically aware CSO Messiah performance in 1984. Those concerts, and the subsequent touchstone recording, offered a top-flight solo quartet of the era (including Kiri te Kanawa) and magnificent singing by the CSO Chorus, including what is still the most thrilling “Hallelujah” chorus on disc.

Since then, Messiah has made semi-regular seasonal appearances at Orchestra Hall, invariably assigned to guest conductors with results more mixed than memorable.

Unfortunately, such was the case again Thursday night when Nicholas McGegan led the CSO and CSO Chorus in a middling Messiah outing in the orchestra’s final subscription program of 2021.

A baroque- and classical-era specialist, McGegan is an old hand in this repertoire. The British conductor’s direction, leading a chamber-sized CSO, displayed all of the historically aware qualities: vigorous with springy rhythms, fleet tempos and admirable transparency.

And yet, even with consistently inspired contributions from the Chicago Symphony Chorus, for extended stretches this performance settled into a rum-ti-tum routine. (It’s striking that often the best Messiah performances seem to come, not from the Baroque “specialists,” but from conductors who perform this rep less frequently.)

Part of the problem was due to an uneven lineup of soloists, but some of it was McGegan’s direction. His lightly sprung style was engaging but unvaried—settling into a kind of generalized jauntiness that didn’t convey much of the score’s dramatic thrust or spiritual import. (Though having concertmaster Robert Chen in the first chair helped ensure lithe and consistently vital playing from the mostly string orchestra.)  

Parts Two and Three went with greater urgency and more incisive grip. Sadly, they also went with massive cuts to the score. Among the jettisoned items were “Thou art gone up on high,” “The Lord gave the word,” “Their sound is gone out” “O Death where is thy sting?” “But thanks be to God,” and “If God be for us” among others. McGegan even cut long-established repeats, including in the Pifa and, jarringly, “He was despised.” 

Worse, the conductor felt the need to insert a provincial theatrical element by having all four soloists gather at the front of the stage and join the chorus in the final stanza of the concluding Amen. That’s show biz.

Complementing McGegan’s breezy approach, the quartet of soloists were mostly on the lighter side vocally.

Ben Bliss, a stellar Don Ottavio in Lyric Opera’s last Don Giovanni, was the clear standout of the evening. The young tenor brought an appealing plangent voice, singing with expressive poise, dramatic strength and assured agility in every aria. 

The other three soloists were more variable, all making their CSO debuts. 

Yulia Van Doren—a longtime guest soloist with Music of the Baroque—displayed admirable agility in “Rejoice greatly,” yet was less impressive in a fluttery “How beautiful are the feet” and short-breathed “I know that my Redeemer liveth.’”

Reginald Mobley brought a slender yet penetrating countertenor to the proceedings, floating an elegantly rendered “He was despised”  with free grace notes. He also contrasted gracefully with Van Doren in the duet, “He shall feed his flock.”

Dashon Burton was largely disappointing. The bass-baritone showed fitful bursts of power and biblical authority. But far too much of his singing was characterized by uneven projection and mushy diction, with an especially underpowered “The trumpet shall sound.” (Principal trumpet Esteban Batallan provided a gleaming, immensely stylish obbligato.)

Prepared by Duain Wolfe, the CSO Chorus provided the most consistent element of the evening, singing with polish, cohesion, expressive depth and clarity even through masks. With these performances dedicated to the memory of chorus founder Margaret Hillis in her centenary year (1921-1998), the occasion was auspiciously marked, at least in that regard.

Handel’s Messiah will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. cso.org

Posted in Performances

One Response to “CSO closes a pandemic year with a cut and middling “Messiah””

  1. Posted Dec 18, 2021 at 8:01 am by James Weiss

    Very disappointing performance. The cuts were unconscionable. I haven’t heard a good CSO Messiah since the Solti in 1984.

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