Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Annual “Seasonal Handel” at Davies

The Music Hall on Fishamble Street in Dublin, where Messiah was first performed (reproduced from the December 1903 issue The Musical Times, from Wikipedia, public domain)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented the first of two performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio Messiah. The vocal soloists were Ying Fang (soprano), Elizabeth DeShong (mezzo), Nicholas Phan (tenor), and Joshua Hopkins (baritone); and, as usual, Ragnar Bohlin prepared the SFS Chorus. The conductor was Jane Glover, last seen on the SFS podium in May of 2012.

To begin by putting my cards on the table, I have to confess that I was not particularly taken with Glover’s last appearance, which consisted of instrumental music by both Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach. Therefore, I am happy to report that last night, acting primarily as a choral conductor, Glover was clearly in her element; and the results were far more satisfying. Working without a baton, Glover engaged her entire body both to tease out the details of Handel’s polyphony and to shape the overall expressiveness of his homophony. While Handel himself was not in his element in dealing with the English translations of Scripture provided by Charles Jennens, Glover skillfully guided both the Chorus and the soloists through any awkward text phrases, giving the whole production a sense of a declaration of faith that was both clear and sincere. Since both choral and instrumental resources were reduced to an eighteenth-century scale (even if the instruments themselves and the performance techniques were not always “historically-informed”), there was a prevailing sense of intimacy in spite of the vastness of the Davies audience area.

For all the virtues of the performance itself, however, I feel a need to call out the shortcomings of the Editorial division of the Communications Department. JungHae Kim was listed in the program book as playing both harpsichord and organ. She spent the entire evening at the keyboard, leaving the organist, who did some very impressive continuo work, particularly in the vocal solos, unnamed (when he clearly deserved better). Also, the duration was listed as “About 2 hours.” We all know that, taken in its entirety, HWV 56 is a long oratorio; and Glover made several judicious cuts in the interest of “narrative flow.” Nevertheless, the final applause did not begin until 10:40 p.m., two-thirds of an hour longer than the specified duration! God may be with us in the mezzo recitative in Part I of Messiah, but the Devil is still in the details!

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