Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) gave the first of three performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio Messiah. An appropriately reduced ensemble of strings, joined only by two oboes and a bassoon, along with two trumpets and timpani for “special occasions,” was joined by the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director), along with four soloists, soprano Lauren Snouffer, countertenor Anthony Ross Costanzo, tenor Zachary Wilder, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn. This was the annual departure from the “pops” offerings that dominate “seasonal” programming during the month of December.
The conductor this year was Patrick Dupré Quigley, Founder and Artistic Director of Seraphic Fire, which consists of both an orchestra and a choir. His Wikipedia page describes him as “particularly known for his interpretations of Baroque and early Classical repertoire,” although the paragraph preceding that phrase suggests that he may be better known among GRAMMY judges than concert audiences. He provided one page of “Insider Info” for last night’s program book, in which he summarized the approaches he would be taking to performance.
Sadly, his words did little to prepare the attentive listener for what would happen after he took the podium. Those expecting a “historically informed” approach to Handel got, instead, 135 minutes of posturing and preening, much of which seemed to be responding to the instrumental and vocal resources, rather than leading them. It was as if Quigley’s priority was to liven things up by establishing a hip persona. It probably did not occur to him that, for many in the audience, particularly those who saw San Francisco Opera’s 2014 production of the HWV 27 opera Partenope with Julian Wachner conducting, there was no questioning Handel’s own hip credentials (not to mention those of Costanzo, who was a major show-stealer in that production). The fact is that both Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach, not to mention many of their contemporaries and predecessors, could jam with the best of them, making music with the same spontaneous energy and immediacy that would later be encountered among the bebop pioneers at Minton’s Playhouse.
Quigley, on the other hand, attached more priority to his own physical appearance than to the full breadth of expressiveness that lies in the HWV 56 score. The result was that any responsibility for music-making had to be assumed off of the podium, and Nadia Tichman certainly did much to keep things under control from her post at the Concertmaster’s chair. Similarly, all vocalists seemed to self-monitor enough to maintain a sense of balance, perhaps taking cues from the soloists, who, in Quigley’s approach, sang many of the choral passages as a quartet. The bottom line is that Quigley’s contributions recalled Gertrude Stein’s remark about there being no “there” there. Then, of course, there was Enrico Fermi’s supposed withering reaction to a student presentation of results that turned out to be little more than gobbledygook. After the student had said his piece, Fermi is said to have responded, “It isn’t even wrong!” Last night Quigley never rose above that level of gobbledygook.