Retail has Black Friday. Classical music has “Messiah” and “Nutcracker” season, and perhaps no classical music organization in the country is so entwined with “Messiah” as Boston’s own Handel and Haydn Society. “Messiah” excerpts were featured on H+H’s first-ever concert in 1815. Three years later, it presented the first complete “Messiah” in the country, and it has offered a Yuletide “Messiah” every single year since 1854. Soloists and conductors may vary year to year, but the program is always the same, and every time I’ve attended, Symphony Hall has been packed to the rafters. This Sunday afternoon was no exception.
All that is to say that in this place and time, “Messiah” always feels much more like a church service than a typical concert, which is perhaps ironic considering the religious controversy that surrounded its early performances in secular venues. A typical performance of “Messiah” lasts between two and a half and three hours depending on tempos, and its rotation of choruses, accompagnatos, and arias invariably sags at one point, if not several, during any given complete performance.
Even so, people attend “Messiah” as (dare I say) religiously as they might a Christmas Eve service: During intermission, I overheard the couple seated behind me comment that they’d been coming “only since 1986.” For some listeners, the oratorio is a holiday ritual as essential as trimming the tree or gathering with family. I’m not one of them: “Messiah” is a wonderful piece of music on its own merits and a unique cultural touchstone, but I don’t need to hear it every year.
If H+H’s elegant performance with guest conductor Václav Luks were to be my last complete “Messiah” for the next few years, I’d be content. Favoring brisk tempos and strong accents, Luks balanced the full-fat richness of the music with zesty expression. The orchestra, with concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky mustering the forces, was on the same wavelength as Luks all afternoon. The conductor’s impact was clearly felt in the H+H chorus, which he had prepared himself: The ensemble flew through fugues with fleet grace, and the familiar “Hallelujah” chorus received a jolt when the “reign” of “reigneth” transformed into an ornate but clean curlicue instead of the solid half note the audience expected.
This approach worked most of the time but not all: When the chorus delivered the opening statements of several well-known tunes (“All we like sheep,” “For unto us a Child is born”), its articulation was noticeably clipped, which contributed to a sense of rushed breathlessness.
For every vocal soloist, “Messiah” has an aria that would probably qualify as an event in their voice part’s Olympics. Tenor Ben Bliss showed off a jaw-droppingly agile yet grounded voice in his company debut, delivering the only gold-medal performance of “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted” I have ever seen live. Contralto Avery Amereau, also an H+H newcomer, proved a keenly expressive and captivating performer if slightly at odds with the orchestra, which seemed to be holding back so as not to drown out her dark-hued instrument. (I’d be interested to see her again in circumstances where she and everyone around her haven’t spent eight of the previous 48 hours performing.)
These two newcomers appeared alongside with two familiar faces: soprano Amanda Forsythe and bass-baritone Kevin Deas, who shared a stage just a few weeks ago with Boston Baroque. Now, as then, they were both excellent. Forsythe was incandescent, throwing a jubilant high note into her “Rejoice greatly” cadenza and providing a lovely post-“Hallelujah” landing with “I know that my redeemer liveth,” an aria that can easily turn into a slog in the wrong hands. (Forsythe can be trusted.) Deas’s score remained closed at his side during the furious “Why do the nations,” and he took that one step further and left the book at his chair for “The trumpet shall sound.” The tones of the Baroque trumpet waned in comparison to Deas’s warm, vibrant bass voice, which filled every corner of the hall. The dead may not have been raised, but anyone who had fallen asleep was surely woken up.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
At Symphony Hall, Sunday, Nov. 27. www.handelandhaydn.org