Maestra JoAnn Falletta led a rousingly spirited rendition of Handel’s magnificent oratorio The Messiah last evening. Keeping the spirit-filled symphony and chorus moving for over two hours, Ms. Falletta gave the orchestra’s string section an opportunity to shine, and shine they did. Their playing did not only sound wonderful, their playing was a lovely visual call-and-response counterpart to the thrilling soloists heading the event. Concertmaster Vahn Armstrong led the proceedings with mesmerizing playing. Seeing and hearing The Messiah live with a full symphony, a chorus led by Robert Shoup, and professional soloists, is an experience unlike any other..
Soprano Amy Owens and Mezzo-Soprano Chrystal Williams allowed the moving text to animate their faces beautifully, while tenor Gene Stenger and bass-baritone Kevin Deas balanced the duo from stage left with voices equally clarion and diction equally precise. (The male soloists found themselves inexplicably and unfortunately singing in the dark for the first half of the concert, their expressive faces relegated to the audience’s imagination only.) Later, Mr. Deas’ “The Trumpet Shall Sound” was met with the thrilling playing of trumpeter Jeremy Garnett.
The audience, moved to their feet, not only by the famous chorus, but by the stupendous finale, did not want the evening to end, nor our maestra to leave.
Handel’s Messiah was written for Easter, Pascha, but is sung at Christmas, The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, and it doesn’t matter.
Because the Nativity is the beginning of the Resurrection. The birth of the living God signals the triumph of life over death. After all, “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ.”
And Handel’s Messiah is an oratorio, not a cantata. Cantatas are for performance in churches. The Messiah was to be performed for a secular audience in a secular place.
And all the text is taken from the Bible. No human librettists were involved.
The Messiah was first performed in Dublin as a charity benefit to raise money to free prisoners from the city’s debtors’ prison. The hall was packed. Many came to glimpse the contralto, Susannah Cibber, then embroiled in a scandalous divorce.
Soloists alternated with wave upon wave of chorus, until, near the midway point, Cibber intoned: “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” So moved was the Rev. Patrick Delany that he leapt to his feet and cried out: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”
That night they raised enough money to free 142 prisoners.
Since 1741 the Messiah has freed many more prisoners.
The Virginia Symphony’s Messiah was one of the state’s great cultural events, and a capstone to the Christian season of unending celebration.