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It Turns Out That a Classical Staple in December Can Be Jazzy in November

11.15.10
Marin Alsop
The New York Times

By Steve Smith

For a few weeks each December you can barely turn a corner in New York without tripping over a performance of a certain great seasonal oratorio by Handel. But “Messiah” returned early and in unusual company on Sunday afternoon when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, in its second Carnegie Hall appearance of the weekend, gamely played second fiddle to a trio of starry singers, a funky rhythm section and an enormous choir of New York high school students.

Marin Alsop, the orchestra’s music director, conceived “Too Hot to Handel: The Gospel Messiah,” a jazzed-up, spirit-soaked 1992 arrangement of that Handel oratorio, when she led the Concordia Orchestra, an independent New York ensemble active then.

Created by Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson, and supervised here by Lesley Stifelman, this brash retooling was meant to bring “Messiah” to new listeners, especially young ones.

You could hardly have wished for a livelier performance or for a better leader than Ms. Alsop, the rare symphonic conductor entirely at ease in vernacular idioms. Kecia Lewis-Evans, Vaneese Thomas and Darius de Haas, the vocal soloists, were emotionally stirring and technically superb. Clifford Carter, a seasoned pop and jazz pianist, served as the ensemble’s bedrock along with Mr. Christianson on Hammond organ. Two prominent, uncredited New York saxophonists, Dan Willis and Bob Malach, added vibrant improvisations.

But what made the event an unalloyed delight were the choristers, from Bayside and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, the Fordham High School for the Arts, the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Songs of Solomon Academy for the Arts and the Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts. Their performance, the finale of a Weill Music Institute program that started last spring, was not just exuberant but polished and precise. This was, quite simply, some of the best choral singing I’ve heard all year.

As for the notion of conversion, call me a skeptic: the idea that slick big-band riffs and an urbane funk beat could sway a modern teenager to Handel seemed like wishful thinking. “Messiah,” a rock for all ages, endured, but the real triumph was a few hundred young voices loosed to soar in a hallowed hall.