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Classical review: Rejoice greatly, O fans of ‘Messiah’

guerreroAfter an absence of nearly two months, Giancarlo Guerrero returned to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on Thursday night, and he brought with him his favorite musical Christmas card.

That would be Handel’s Messiah, the beloved Baroque oratorio that’s the focus of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s final classical subscription concert of 2012. Guerrero conducts Messiah every December. That said, he never presents it the same way twice.

This weekend, he’s approaching Messiah as a kind of intimate chamber piece. On Thursday, he conducted without a baton and without standing on a podium.  Instead, he stood on the stage, on the same level as the musicians and singers. The message was clear: This was going to be a group effort, with everyone making music spontaneously together, more or less as equals.

Guerrero made no attempt to present a historically authentic Messiah. Save for one lone harpsichord, there were no period instruments in this performance – no gut-string violins or valveless horns. Also missing, I regret to say, were some of the finer points of Baroque performance practice. I heard few tiered dynamics (the Baroque’s alternating loud-soft playing) on Thursday night. The oratorio’s trademark Baroque dance rhythms likewise lacked springiness.

The size of the forces, however, did seem historically accurate. In 18th-century fashion,  Guerrero led a stripped down ensemble of about 20 strings players along with bassoon, oboe, trumpets (which played in the balcony during the chorus “Glory to God in the Highest”) and timpani. The chorus, under the direction of interim chorus director Kelly Corcoran, was also streamlined to about 60 vocalists.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the best of the vocal soloists on Thursday night was soprano Sherezade Panthaki, a rising star in the early-music world. Over the years, she’s performed with such renowned Baroque interpreters as Nicholas McGegan and William Christie. The quality of her experience came through in every one of her performances with the NSO.

In such airs as “Rejoice Greatly” and “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” Panthaki sang with a bright, pure and powerful sound, produced with minimal vibrato in perfect period fashion. She tossed off difficult melismatic passages with seeming ease. Her top notes were positively translucent.

The other soloists also gave worthy performances. Mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen’s feathery, amber-colored voice often seemed a size too small for her part. Nonetheless, her interpretations were always unfailingly sensitive to the meaning of the words – her reading of “He was despised” was a heart-rending lament. Tenor Gordon Gietz sang with clarity and a creamy sound. Bass-baritone Michael Dean’s dark chocolate voice proved to be remarkably expressive.

The chorus provided some of the evening’s most memorable performances. Singing with a beautifully blended sound, they dashed off the exultant 16th-note roulades in “For unto us a child is born” with effervescent lightness. They sang the “Hallelujah” – with the audience standing in rapt attention – with resounding joy.

Guerrero and the NSO will repeat Messiah on Friday, Dec. 21 and Saturday, Dec. 22. You should rejoice greatly to such news, and bring a friend to one of the performances.

If you go

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus present Handel’s Messiah. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21 and Saturday, Dec. 22 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony  Place. Tickets are $49 to $109. Call 687-6400 or go to www.nashvillesymphony.org.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.