Review: Messiah, The Cecilia Chorus of New York

Saturday, December 12 2015
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

The Cecilia Chorus of New York with Orchestra
Mark Shapiro, conductor

Liv Redpath, soprano
Siman Chung, countertenor
Theo Lebow, tenor
Daniel Miroslaw, bass

Handel, Messiah (1741)

As was made clear during this blog’s first post, I’m not a fan of oratorios.  Tonight I had gone to Carnegie Hall with the intention of attending a Gershwin/Tchaikovsky/Shostakovich concert, but that was sold out.  Plenty of tickets were still available, however, for a little-known ensemble’s performance of Messiah.  Figuring that I should try to salvage my evening, and that the “Cecilia Chorus of New York with Orchestra” can’t be worse than the New York Philharmonic, I went ahead and sat through my first Messiah.

Like with Haydn’s The Creation, I don’t have much to say about the performance, other than to confirm that the orchestra was indeed solid.  The choir, too.  The bass had like the lowest male singing voice I’ve ever heard, and the countertenor, the highest.  Standing up during the “Hallelujah” chorus is apparently a holidays tradition, so there’s something you don’t see everyday at Carnegie Hall.
image

Otherwise, in lieu of a real review, I’m posting a paragraph from a paper I wrote in college on the chorus “For onto us a child is born” for a music history class:

Theorist Christoph Bernhard defined the essence of the Baroque music when he asserted that music must appropriately imitate the text, that “one should set joyful things joyfully, sorrowful things sorrowfully, swift things swiftly, slow things slowly.”[1] Consistent with this Baroque spirit, the setting of the text in “For unto us a child is born” parallels its subject matter. The voices of the chorus are introduced one at a time, so the first line of the text is prominently characterized by imitative polyphony. The first line is also the most repeated line of the text, as “For unto us a child is born” is repeated five times and “unto us a son is given” is repeated eight times within approximately the first minute of the piece. Each repetition is set to the same basic melody, but generous ornaments are at times added to emphasize the word “born”, which is held for many beats in several of the repetitions. This heavy use of repetition as well as ornamentation helps to depict Christ’s birth as a joyous event, thereby creating a mood of celebration. The next line, “and the government shall be upon his shoulder” is also sung in imitative polyphony with the word “shoulder” ornamented and held, but the voices converge in rhythm during the final repetition of the line to usher in the second half of the text. Starting with “and his name shall be called”, the rest of the text is characterized by harmonic polyphony, which reflects a shift in the theme of the text from celebration to reverence. The words “wonderful” and “counselor” are noticeably emphasized by accents on their first syllables; moreover, the phrases “the mighty God” and “the everlasting father” both are set to upward disjuncts that emulate the sense of admiration and wonder captured by the text. On the other hand, “the prince of peace” is set to an upward conjunct, which allows the chorus to reach a natural climax while also providing the piece with a sense of stability. Note that both of these effects resonate the last word of the text, “peace”.
[1] Weiss/Taruskin 50, The Doctrine of Figures

(Man, how much have I regressed as a musicologist in the past decade.)

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