At Friday evening’s performance of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” the Handel and Haydn Society announced that it had received an anonymous gift of $10 million in honor of artistic director Harry Christophers, and it bestowed on Christophers the title conductor laureate, to take effect when he concludes his tenure next May. On Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall, Christophers led his final “Messiah” before stepping down. The performance was worthy of the occasion.
Handel’s 1742 oratorio goes back a long way in this city. In 1773, just months before throwing chests of tea into the harbor, Bostonians heard a program of extracts. In 1818, the Handel and Haydn Society, then just three years old, presented America’s first complete “Messiah.” Since then, H+H has given Handel’s masterpiece more than 400 performances. Some 19th-century editions were massive in scale; in 1857 the chorus numbered 600. From 1875 until the 1930s, H+H offered a version based on Mozart’s arrangement of the work. More recent presentations, with scaled-down forces and period instruments, have tried to approximate what Handel himself might have heard.
But it’s Christophers who, in his 13 seasons here, has brought H+H’s “Messiah” into focus. Handel’s oratorio isn’t just a cozy Christmas carol, or a collection of wonderful arias and choruses intermingled with boring recitatives. Over the two-plus hours, as the chorus and soloists narrate Jesus’s birth, crucifixion, and resurrection, God promises to “shake the heavens, and the earth,” Jesus hides “not his face from shame and spitting,” and “the kings of the earth rise up against the Lord and His anointed.” The pastoral siciliana that introduces the angel’s Christmas-tide annunciation to the shepherds reappears in “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd,” and then in “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach,” but it also, with ominous syncopation, provides the rhythm of the doleful “Behold, the Lamb of God” chorus that opens part two. And if “All we like sheep have gone astray,” in the final chorus it’s “the Lamb who was slain” that saves us.
In other words, this is a drama, and Christophers has always treated it as such. His “Messiah” pleads, it laments, it rejoices. Most of all, it dances. Christophers himself dances as he conducts. Earlier in his tenure, he would pace back and forth (no podium) in front of the orchestra like a border collie prepared to make a run at any performer who might go astray. He was more restrained on Sunday, and in fact part one, the Christmas story, seemed more restrained than usual. There was clarity from the chorus but not ecstasy, and though the four soloists — soprano Carolyn Sampson, contralto Emily Marvosh, tenor James Way, and baritone Roderick Williams — made a good job of looking at the audience rather than at their scores, at times they sounded underpowered.
Parts two and three, after intermission, told a different story. Marvosh had been scheduled to be part of the chorus; she stepped up when countertenor Reginald Mobley had to withdraw because of illness. It’s not the first time she’s sung the alto/countertenor part; I have fond memories of her performance from 2015. Christophers set a very slow tempo for the very long aria “He was despised and rejected of men,” and she responded with heartrending directness, remaining musical on the word “spitting” and floating “a man of sorrows.”
That energized the performance. The chorus turned “Surely He hath borne our griefs” into a rousing march before rolling into the fugue of “And with His stripes we are healed” and then a pulsating “All we like sheep.” A hushed orchestra showed to fine advantage behind a more assertive and characterful Way in the sequence that started with “All they that see Him”; then it swayed and lilted behind a radiant Sampson in “How beautiful are the feet.” The soloists stood for the “Hallelujah” chorus; so did most of the audience.
Part three, post-“Hallelujah,” can sag. Not here. Sampson was celestial in “I know that my redeemer liveth” and turned the final word, “sleep,” into a lullaby. Williams was the equal of trumpeter Jesse Levine in “And the trumpet shall sound”; Marvosh and Way blended confidently in “O death, where is thy sting?”; Sampson was almost childlike in “If God be for us.” By the time the chorus surged into “Worthy is the Lamb,” I found myself thinking, “What? Over so soon?” Many will feel the same way about Christophers’s tenure.
Presented by The Handel and Haydn Society Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus. Harry Christophers, conducting. At Symphony Hall, Nov. 28.
This story has been updated to correct an error in the subhead. Harry Christophers will finish out the season before stepping down in May 2022.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.