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Houston Symphony delivers magnificent ‘Messiah’

December 24, 2018

The “Hallelujah” chorus occurs roughly two hours into George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.” For a classical audience, payoffs don’t come much bigger.

By itself, the staccato cadence of the word “hallelujah” conveys a feeling of triumph. The thrice-repeated sequence that begins on the line “king of kings,” ascending in pitch each time, never fails to arouse the neck hairs. The momentum is so stirring that in less formal circumstances one might even head-bang during the “Forever! And ever!” bars near the end.

It is a spectacular piece of music whose fame tends to overshadow the rest of Handel’s oratorio, which debuted in 1741, in the public’s imagination. But those fortunate enough to witness a performance of the entire work like the Houston Symphony’s last Friday, conducted with great care by Baroque specialist Jane Glover, understand that the cumulative spiritual wealth of these exceedingly well-spent two and a half hours far surpasses its most famous four minutes.

Here, by the time “Hallelujah” rolled around it wasn’t quite anticlimactic; more like a few more thrilling moments where the audience just happened to be standing (more on that later), with still more to come. For sheer musical exultation, the seven-minute “Amen” choral finale is easily a match for its more famous cousin. The arrival of the trumpets and tympani alone is enough to make anyone start looking over their shoulder for angels.

But regardless of whatever religious context may or may not be present, something ineffable happens when dozens of well-trained voices join together in song. The glory of “Messiah” might be dimmed immeasurably if not for the wonderful Houston Symphony Chorus, which Friday outnumbered the stringed musicians onstage by at least two, maybe three to one. Just two oboes and trumpets apiece, bassoon, and tympani accounted for the remaining instruments onstage. (Plus one more: by doubling on organ and harpsichord, principal keyboardist Scott Holshouser further enhanced the Enlightenment-era atmosphere.)

Both instrumentally and vocally, Handel’s score is rife with counterpoint and fugues, musical architecture whose ornateness embellishes rather than obscures his pristine melodies. By introducing various strands of his composition to one section of the orchestra or chorus or another at precise intervals, Handel engineered a mathematical marvel that creates the effect of music spiraling into the heavens.

Then, when all 100-something musicians act in tandem, those heavens open.

Glover’s hands-on approach

The British-born Glover, music director of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque since 2002 and author of this year’s “Handel in London: The Making of a Genius,” conducted with innate authority over the source material and great empathy with the musicians in her charge. Eschewing a baton, she used the distance between her hands to indicate the music’s relative modesty or boldness, reducing some measures to mere inches while others required her entire wingspan.

“Messiah” is subdivided into nearly 50 sections, granting plenty of solo acreage to each of its four featured vocalists. Tenor Thomas Cooley showed impressive range, soothing and supple early during Part 1’s “Comfort ye, my people” and “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted,” later practically taunting Christ’s torturers on “He that dwelleth in heaven.”

Christopheren Nomura’s rugged baritone made a suitable harbinger of a more metaphorical darkness on “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” and “Why do the nations furiously rage together,” before proving strong enough to vanquish said darkness during Part 3’s “The trumpet shall sound.”

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong’s lustrous timbre was equally versatile, projecting uncertainty and anticipation onto “But who may abide the day of his coming?” and an inner radiance during “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion.” Particularly lovely was one of the evening’s longer pieces, Part 2’s “He was despised and rejected,” DeShong hinting at the simmering anger Jesus’s followers also felt among during their pervasive sorrow at his crucifixion.

And she may have had the longest wait before singing (about 45 minutes), but soprano Ying Feng more than made up for it as the Angel of the Lord in the sequence that begins with “There were shepherds abiding in the field,” her voice emitting the power and warmth of a laser beam.

Audience disruption

Unfortunately, some sort of disturbance erupted during “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” a star turn for the soprano role and perhaps the dearest individual section of the entire piece. Later it came out that the kerfluffle was the apparent result of some sort of seating dispute, but Jones Hall’s ushers handled an awkward situation with discretion and professionalism.

Now, a note about standing. The feeling as the entire audience rises as one at the down beat of the “Hallelujah” chorus has to be one of the most profound experiences a symphonic audience can have. But there is one important distinction to make.

During “Hallelujah,” standing is tradition — one supposedly started by King George II, a popular myth Glover debunks in her new book, by the way. After the “Amen” chorus, which concludes “Messiah” with seven-plus minutes of exhilarating counterpoint, it’s practically compulsory.

Houston probably has splashier holiday traditions than “Messiah.” It’s hard to think of any that are more satisfying and uplifting.

Chris Gray is a Houston-based writer.

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