The review below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of Dec. 16, 2005.
What all good singers have in common is a characteristic timbre making their voices instantly recognizable. In its mounting of Handel's Messiah this weekend, the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra has assembled an outstanding quartet of vocalists with just such qualities. As usual, Maestro Guillermo Figueroa tended to favor brisk tempos, keeping soloists, the chorus and the orchestra swiftly bouncing along whenever appropriate.
While there is no question that Handel's assembling of the music of the Messiah in less than a month is one of the most remarkable achievements in music, much of the work was taken from music he had already written. Perfectly justifiable, especially in terms of the practice of the time, that it would not be entirely wrong to call the oratorio a kind of “Handel's Greatest Hits.” Indeed, it contains some of his most familiar and most beloved music.
The Messiah is also a marvel of textual assemblage with bits and bobs taken from both Hebrew and Christian bibles, carefully given new order for maximum effect. And no one knew how to expound a text musically better than Handel.
As Handel was constantly altering the work to suit specific performance opportunities, there is no definitive edition of the work. There are almost as many versions and orchestrations (by Mozart and others) as there are performances each year. The current production employs Handel's original orchestration.
Rarely have I heard a performance of any oratorio with voices so distinctively different from each other, thereby maximizing the vocal contrast of the work.
Each of the four soloists appeared with impressive credentials behind them. Most outstanding was mezzo-soprano Jennifer Hines, late of the Metropolitan Opera where she sang in that company's Ring Cycle (Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung). Fully able to plumb the depths of the alto part, her voice is rich and reedy, smoothly traversing the entirety of the range. Mary Ellen Callahan recently recorded Gluck's Il Parnaso Confuso with Julianne Baird. Her very high-sounding soprano seems to float effortlessly in the highest register. Tenor Karl Dent immediately set the tone of “Comfort Ye” with a bright, clear color and an unabashed enthusiasm. A fiery and impassioned “Why do the nations so furiously rage” came bursting out from bass-baritone Jason Grant, later executing a brilliant duet with trumpet player Mark Hyams in “The trumpet shall sound.” Grant and Hines are former Santa Fe Opera apprentices.
The NMSO Chorus prepared by Roger Melone (also performing the harpsichord continuo part) began rather subdued by design in the first section, growing ever more forceful as the work progressed. Carefully balanced voices threaded the intricate counterpoint, ultimately climaxing in pure majesty with the great “ Hallelujah Chorus.” Building from the simplest materials, Handel achieves the most powerful, even profound effects. As per custom, the audience stood at the opening of the chorus as King George did at the first performance.
The king standing for the composer: just as it should be!