around new york different ways of hearing handels messiah

Around New York, Different Ways of Hearing Handel’s ‘Messiah’

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We have arrived at that point in the holiday season when it seems as though you could attend a different performance of Handel’s “Messiah” every few days.

On Friday and Saturday, the Trinity Baroque Orchestra and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street returned to their newly restored home, Trinity Church Wall Street, for their first “Messiah” there since 2018. The fresh stained-glass facade, illuminated from within, shined like a beacon to concertgoers approaching from down the street. Inside, the narrow nave seemed to huddle everyone together for a communal purpose.

A few days later, on Tuesday, the New York Philharmonic, joined by the Handel and Haydn Society, began a five-day “Messiah” run at its own recently remodeled home, David Geffen Hall. The lobby — conceived as a gathering space with seating areas, a bar and furnishings so mundane they must have been designed to be unintimidating — bustled with audience members and laptop users. Poinsettias lined the brightly lit stage in the auditorium.

The venues did more than set a mood; they participated in the performance. Each one’s distinctive acoustics complemented the ensemble’s style. If Trinity felt more immersive, and the Philharmonic more pro forma, they both offered memorable qualities that made a case for the city’s annual “Messiah” abundance.

In the coming days, the festivities accelerate. Kent Tritle leads two ensembles in “Messiah” at Carnegie Hall: on Monday, the Oratorio Society of New York, which takes a cast of hundreds approach with its massive choir; and on Dec. 21, Musica Sacra, which uses Baroque bows to add a dash of period style. The National Chorale will rent Geffen Hall for a participatory “sing-in” on Sunday. And there are free “Messiah” singalongs at Christ Church Riverdale in the Bronx on Saturday, and “Hallelujah” flash mobs around Midtown Manhattan on Dec. 21.

Trinity, which offered one of the first performances of “Messiah” in New York, in 1770, and the Philharmonic, whose founder conducted its first full concert in the city, can both lay claim to a piece of the work’s history. This season, both had the advantage of a Baroque-music specialist at the helm, with Andrew Megill at Trinity and Masaaki Suzuki at the Philharmonic. They even used the same performing edition from Oxford University Press.

But beauty emerged in the places where they diverged.

Trinity’s period-instrument ensemble and choir produce a light, precise, nimble sound that gains warmth and richness in the church’s acoustic. At Saturday’s performance, which was livestreamed, the use of an organ, played by Avi Stein, as opposed to a harpsichord, provided a mellow, cloudlike underlay. The string players rendered every flourish as fresh arcs of sound.

To get a sense of just how well-drilled Trinity’s choir is, you can strip away the church acoustic by watching a video of its 2019 “Messiah,” conducted by Julian Wachner at St. Paul’s Chapel while its home church was being renovated. In the chorus “And he shall purify,” taken at a breakneck yet sprightly pace, the notes tumble evenly in time.

The Philharmonic uses modern instruments whose boldness gains clarity in the clean resonance of its new auditorium. In the opening Symphony, the players sliced through the air with dramatic fervor, their trills landing a little heavily in Suzuki’s stately tempo. The harpsichord, folded into the texture, emitted an appealingly gentle tinkle. Over the course of the evening, though, Suzuki’s tempos lagged, and the players seemed to meander through the music unless it had theatrical flair — common in Handel’s operas, but rare here.

Where Trinity’s choir prizes dexterity, the choristers of the Handel and Haydn Society make evocative use of timbral contrast. In “And he shall purify,” the choral sections stacked atop one another in staggered entrances that amassed into a smoothly luxuriant texture. “For unto us a child is born” was a marvel of color: The tenors offered a sense of wonder; the altos, excitement; the basses, appreciation; the sopranos, confidence.

The baritone Jonathon Adams made a singular Philharmonic debut. Adams, who identifies as two-spirit — the term used by Indigenous communities for those who are nonbinary — did not put on airs. Dressed humbly in loose black clothes, they sometimes hunched over their score, almost crumpling into it, before opening their mouth to reveal a magnificently sonorous timbre. Adams enunciated words like a deep-toned voice-over artist and used classic Handelian word painting in the aria “The people that walked in darkness,” adopting a shadowy tone before opening up into resplendent high notes on the word “light.” This was good old-fashioned oratorio style, in which singing is an elevated form of recitation.

The Philharmonic’s other soloists included the soprano Sherezade Panthaki, who scrupulously shaped her music by approaching top notes with a diminuendo. In slow passages, the countertenor Reginald Mobley spun a gossamer sound that frayed at faster tempos. The tenor Leif Aruhn-Solén, whose glimmering voice didn’t cut in any register, showed questionable taste in ornaments, dynamic contrast and his pantomime of the text.

Trinity doled out Handel’s solos to the members of its choir. Many of them, with vocal techniques built for tonal blend and rhythmic precision in a chorus, favored a straight tone that gleamed like white light but also exposed waywardness in pitch. Still, period style doesn’t mean stilted: Some of the singing in the more fiery arias was positively gutsy. Male altos, who created an intriguing softness within the aural fabric of the chorus, contributed solos so subtle they almost evaporated. The soprano Shabnam Abedi showed lovely warmth in “How beautiful are the feet”; and the bass-baritone Brian Mextorf had a light, handsome tone in “The trumpet shall sound.”

Trinity would appear to have the more heartfelt and historically informed performance but for one moment at the Philharmonic: As the audience in Geffen Hall stood in respectful attention for the exalted music of “Hallelujah,” Adams could be seen at the side of the stage, singing heartily with the bass section.

As Clifford Bartlett, the editor of the Oxford edition, noted in his introduction to the score, the soloists in Handel’s time likely sang the choruses as well. I couldn’t hear Adams, but I shared the reaction of their fellow soloists, who appeared both delighted and disarmed by Adams’s sincerity of expression — a reminder that “Messiah,” after all the variance in instrumentation, style and performance practice, is an act of community.