Two religious works that offer hedonistic pleasures returned to Symphony Hall on Thursday night, the start of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s holiday programming. The concert of excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah” and Vivaldi’s Gloria repeats tonight. With the chamber chorus in sparkling form, it comes warmly recommended — despite a few quibbles.
For all the musical appeal, the rituals built up around the ASO’s Christmas concerts are oddly stiff, with countless artistic and historical inconsistencies and complications. The stage is festive, trimmed with giant green wreaths, tiny icicle lights and long red ribbons. But there’s a cold solemnity to the proceedings. In part, this comes from conductor Norman Mackenzie’s quiet manner and his reluctance to engage directly with the audience, to put a face and a personality on the evening.
The nature of the celebration is as big a factor. Unlike, say, a performance of Bach’s “St. John” Passion or Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass,” which the ASO presents as secular entertainments — often revealing the music’s deepest humanity in the process — its annual “Messiah” show is cloaked in a churchy and devotional vibe.
Religion in the concert hall has never been a comfortable fit, going back to the creation of “Messiah.” In the 1740s, Enlightenment values were on the ascent in England and traditional Anglican Church doctrine faced a rivalry from deism — a belief in God but which favored reason over the supernatural and generally rejected organized religion. Anglican evangelicals, such as Charles Jennens, a noted Shakespeare scholar, took their battle directly to where these lapsed Christians often congregated: not in church but in the theater.
Jennens supplied the “Messiah” libretto, using lines from Scripture that Handel’s audiences would have known since childhood, as a reminder of their Anglican identity and as a warning that to stray from doctrine comes with assorted after-life punishments. Handel’s three-part oratorio, commenting on the Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ, was first performed at Easter time in 1742, in Dublin’s newly opened Great Music Hall. Jonathan Swift, author of “Gulliver’s Travels” and Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the Irish capital, disapproved of the work as bordering on sacrilege — sacred texts in the concert hall — and after the London premiere, a year later, ministers formally denounced it. Librettist Jennens initially criticized Handel’s music because it was not supportive enough of his missionary aims.
Too secular for some, too doctrinal for others, “Messiah” found its popularity among the sort-of faithful. Transplanted to the Advent season from Passion Week, and with two-thirds of the score cut — two-thirds! — it has held its ground among our most beloved Yuletide traditions, along with Black Friday, Cyber Monday, “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and Lenox Square mall’s Pink Pig roller coaster.
Mackenzie conducted this amputated “Messiah” as if it indeed held sacred truths. With a scaled-back orchestra, less vibrato from the strings and relatively taut phrasing, Mackenzie’s approach drew from period-instrument ideals. Another layer of complication for the modern-instrument ASO: attempting to play this bleeding chunk with a certain “authenticity.”
Much of it was convincing. He paced the opening orchestral Sinfonia carefully, cautiously, as if he was searching for deeper answers, and I don’t recall ever before hearing the slow introduction offered so meaningfully. He could afford to be humble. At the first chorus, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” the 58-voice chamber choir sang with radiant power but an inviting intimacy. Although the highest sopranos were pale in tone once or twice across the evening, the chorus reached for sublime singing, at their best in the thickest contrapuntal moments. The inner voices, the altos and tenors, blended with otherworldly beauty.
The quartet of vocal soloists was a mixed lot. Tenor Richard Clement, often a satisfying presence, here strained to sing his one aria. Bass Gerard Sundberg, vocally commanding a few years ago, was either slow to warm up — a problem when you get just two numbers to sing — or can no longer vocalize the part. He showed his understanding of the text and affecting communication skills in the recited “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth.”
The women were much superior. Mezzo Magdalena Wor (at left), an Atlantan at the start of an international career, has a lot of mystery in her voice. Her sound is rather small, but with thrust and a caramel dark color. She shaped phrases fetchingly and kept the listener hanging on every syllable of the aria “But who may abide.”
Curiously, Mackenzie kept the brakes on the aria’s B section — on the line “For He is like a refiner’s fire” — despite the fact that Handel’s “prestissimo” is the composer’s fastest-ever marking. With different movements paced about the same — either fast-ish or slow-ish — the cumulative effect was that Mackenzie ignored the composer’s sophisticated tempo scheme — yet another contradiction in an otherwise thoughtful interpretation.
“O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” is enthrallingly operatic, and Wor sang it with vocal intensity and theatrical involvement. That is exactly how Handel — who’d been stung by the collapse of his lifelong Italian opera ambitions before reluctantly turning to English-language oratorio — would have expected it to be sung.
The chorus’ charged entrance in “O thou that tellest” was a goosebump moment. Mackenzie conducted another choral highlight, “Glory to God,” with extreme articulation and clipped phrasing, an interesting, fresh approach. Soprano Kiera Duffy, lighter and fluttery in voice, offered an angelic “Rejoice greatly.” And with the built-in standing ovation of “Hallelujah,” the ASO brought “Messiah” home in just under an hour.
They opened the evening with another sacred work that sounds operatic, Vivaldi’s Gloria. As in the Handel, Mackenzie had the orchestra reduce its voice, like a singer “marking” his part in a rehearsal, which put the orchestra in a bind. A period-instrument ensemble must play to its upper limits in a big work with chorus and vocal soloists — which lets their instruments sing out to the fullest and boosts the players’ adrenaline. But a modern group like the ASO gets to play full out with Mahler and Stravinsky, not masters of the Baroque. In this Vivaldi, more so than in the Handel, the ASO seemed unsure of how much to give, which made everything a little uneasy. The performance was nevertheless superb, especially the trumpets and the continuo players, including harpsichordist Peter Marshall, oboist Elizabeth Koch, cellist Karen Freer and bassoonist Elizabeth Burkhardt.
The chorus’ “Et in terra pax” (“And on earth, peace”) was at once the most earthy and lofty singing imaginable. Wor’s and Duffy’s voices didn’t quite blend, yet their strengths complemented each other beautifully in the “Laudamus te.” Expect the performance to be much more solid on Saturday.