Messiah, Up Close, Monumental, and Personal

Steven Winn on December 23, 2012
American Bach Soloists
American Bach Soloists

Grace Cathedral overwhelms. Its size and scale and austere gray cliffs of stone can make a visitor feel small, dwarfed, awed into a humbled silence. Small and intimate things seems far off as thoughts expand and reveries ascend into the mighty spaces high above.

While music enjoys some striking atmospheric advantages in San Francisco’s grandest sacred space, it also faces the challenge of connecting to the listener in such a large, reverberant canyon. But that is exactly what the American Bach Soloists achieved on Friday night, in the first of three performances of Handel’s Messiah.

What stood out above all, in this annual rite that drew a huge crowd, was the sense of being addressed directly, personally, confidingly. The four wonderful soloists didn’t declaim or dramatize the texts. They felt and witnessed them. The chorus built sturdy, softly shining bridges through the evening. The Baroque instrument orchestra, even as it sometimes battled to a draw with the church’s complex acoustics, was by turns lithe, limber, sinewy and lyrical.

Conductor Jeffrey Thomas brought it all together, melding his ABS forces with precision and intuitive responsiveness to Handel’s capacious 1742 masterwork. The dynamic and tempo shifts were arresting but never showy or arbitrary. Even the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the one piece that would seem to hold no surprises for even the most casual listener, came off freshly, its rising swells of crescendoes spilling over with a cumulative tidal force of exaltation.

From the opening bars of the orchestral Sinfony (all spellings, including the composer’s middle name, appear as they do in the generously annotated program), it was clear this would be no ordinary, caressing entry into the oratorio. The strings invoked a somber, almost forlorn air, pierced here and there by a pungent oboe. It served notice that the Christian faith to be explored over the next 2 3/4 hours is never easy or perfunctory, that the celebration of God’s glory is full of pain as well as triumph, the suffering that makes the resurrection so compelling.

That seriousness of purpose was apparent right away in tenor Wesley Rogers’ “Comfort ye,” sung more as a serious summons than soothing imprecation. Then, in one of numerous close line readings that so distinguished this Messiah, Rogers gave the word “pardon’d” a plush, forgiving softness. His “Ev’ry Valley” offered a crystalline prospect of all the mountains, hills, and rough places ahead.

Countertenor Ian Howell lit a brightly flaming “Refiner’s Fire,” flickering with expert ornaments and trills. Baritone Jesse Blumberg took the listeners deep into the valley of darkness, which only made the softly gleaming shaft of “Light” he found there more transforming. The smile that soprano Mary Wilson offered as she invited all to “Rejoice greatly” was matched and exceeded by her flowing, steadily expansive vocal line.

The soloists’ felicities continued throughout the performance, even through a long passage in Part the Second that contains music that is often excised. Again and again, the solos were set off beautifully by the chorus. One choice example came just before intermission, when Wilson and Howell meandered weightlesly through “He shall feed his Flock.” The chorus, effectively deployed in two sections on either side of the orchestra, followed with a wonderfully buoyant and ringing account of “His Yoke is easy.”

The distinctive moments kept coming. Howell touched a note of deep grief and anguish in “He was despised and rejected,” landing with a raw and chillingly explicit image of the “Shame and Spitting” Jesus endured. The chorus offered a bracing response: “And with His Stripes we are healed,” they asserted, over a murmurous orchestral ground. Thomas drove home the point with the sobering, dirge-like emphasis he placed on “the iniquity of us all” at the end of the next chorus.

“Lift up your Heads” was at once taut and spry. Wilson transformed the often filmy “I know that my Redeemer liveth” into a stirring expression of faith with her forceful articulation of the opening words: “I know.” Trumpeter Caleb Hudson set up a soaring Messiah climax with an exquisite solo, a “last trumpet” at once singingly innocent and decisive.

The occasional murky orchestral passage and some forgettable arias and recitatives were all forgotten in the sustained glories at the end. Even with their final “Amen,” Thomas and the American Bach Soloists retained a sense of balance and proportion, a defining shapeliness and attention to detail that made for such a memorable night. In the end it wasn’t Grace Cathedral that held the audience in its grip, but Handel’s eternal monument.