They’re Singing Midrash (But Not For Me)

At least there is the music, I tell myself.  Despite all of Christianity’s distortions and extreme misappropriations of Jewish concepts and traditions of mashiach (“messiah) — and we know with what often murderous consequences for Jews and Judaism, there is still (some of) the music inspired by the midrash. For, yes, Virginia, the ‘Story of the Birth of Jesus’ is a kind of midrash — certainly composed in midrashic style, its narrative components selected from the Torah and Nevi’im.

On Sunday afternoon, December 23, at the Kimmel Center, The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Handel Messiah maven Paul Goodwin, and with chorus by the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, performed George Frederic Handel’s oratorio Messiah.  This work includes a “Hallelujah” movement nearly as famous as Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah”.  The performance featured the voices of four soloists: soprano Karina Gauvin, mezzo-soprano Diana Moore, tenor John Tessier, and baritone Christopheren Nomura.  

Orchestra, Chorale, and soloists alike were all somewhat undermined, if not at times defeated, by what should have been the best ally and support to their performance, the Verizon Hall’s acoustics.  The instrumental music especially did not sufficiently project — it often felt muted and diminished in sound, to adequately convey whatever nuance of subtlety and power there is in Handel’s music.  No sound check, perhaps?  Or was it a need for more, or better, PA system amplification?  One would think in the performance of music proclaiming birth of a “Messiah,” the broadcast of the sound would be of excellent, triumphant volume.

Even more unsatisfying was the noticeably humorless, unnecessarily serious and stiff, severe even, attitude of the interpretation and performance.  Where was the joy?  This narrative is, after all, about a… child.  And a child plays with joy. The performance felt proximate to a child’s joy during the “Hallelujah” movement — for who can pronounce this Hebrew word of praise and invocation without feeling joy? Also in the For Unto Us A Child Is Born movement, I heard a bit of a child’s zetz and freilich I expected. (If you want to hear a really joyous performance of this movement, listen to Roches’ version which opens their CD We Three Kings.)

A child’s joy, laughter, and play, their spirit precisely, is ‘deliverance’ to a music composition so often encrusted with stifling sentiments and pieties, such as Handel’s Messiah. There was careful, cautious technique, yes, and precision tone too, both instrumental and vocal, in this performance, but not the Psalmist’s freilich before the Torah scroll.  

Perhaps next performance of Handel’s Messiah I shall hear a little more midrash, a little less ‘messiah’.  Next Year in Verizon Hall!

2012-2013 is the inaugural season of the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin.  He will conduct a New Year’s Eve program that includes Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, J. Strauss, Jr.’s “Blue Danube” Waltz, and Leonard Bernstein’s “Mambo” from West Side Story.  Ticket and performance information: 215.893.1999 or the official website.


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