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Pacific Symphony offers memorable “Messiah”

12.17.07
Giancarlo Guerrero
Orange County Register

Handel's "Messiah," which was performed Sunday afternoon by the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale in Segerstrom Concert Hall, has been popular since its premiere in 1741, and has never left the repertoire, making it one of the oldest pieces in continuous performance. Even Bach had to be revived; Vivaldi was virtually unknown until the 1950s. But good old "Messiah" has always appealed, and always will. Folks even sing along with it.

Its sacred subject matter explains but little of its continued attraction. It's an entertaining work for the believer and non-believer alike. Handel, though religious, was a man of the theater, and he wrote his oratorios, including "Messiah," as acceptable forms of entertainment during the Lenten season, when the performance of opera was forbidden. "Messiah" is essentially opera by other means -- the hair shirt is optional.

Certainly Sunday's performance had all the liveliness that one could want. It was led by guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, a Costa Rican recently named music director of the Nashville Symphony and a musician who tapped into the heart of this score. He is a dignified conductor, but never a dull one. He trusted the music to do its thing, and allowedit rather than forced it to do so. He recognized the simplicity and directness of "Messiah" and limned it with elegance and buoyancy.

There's nothing creaky or formal about "Messiah." The counterpoint, contrary to Bach, is never thick, learned or severe. A listener is always seduced by pure melody, not the technical manipulation of it. Handel was particularly alive to the text (taken from the Bible) and painted vivid musical pictures with it. When the mezzo-soprano mentions a "refiner's fire," the strings produce fast, racing notes -- the flickering flames. The bass sings of the "Shadow of Death" and dark clouds creep into the music, dimming the light. When "Ev'ry valley" is "exalted," the music vaults upwards with glee. It's not exactly rocket science, or even remotely -- it's just vivid.

The word "Hallelujah," of course, resulted in the single most famous setting of that word (I'm sure you hear it now), but my favorite, the one that gets me every time, is "Wonderful." This comes in the chorus "For unto us a Child is born." Handel leads up to it brilliantly, with a dotted-rhythmic figure sketching the burden of "Government" on the shoulders of Christ. Then, the music shifts gears, frees itself, the violins outline a shimmering halo of running sixteenth notes, and the choir sings that "His Name" shall be called "WON-derful." The German Handel is occasionally criticized for his clumsiness with the English language but Gershwin couldn't have done better.

Guerrero's approach was to keep things light and clear. The rhythms were gracefully pointed, dance-like. The bass lines were balletic, on the toes, serving as the rhythm section that made the music go. The Pacific Chorale sang nimbly, the fuguing fleet, airy and soft, as if fuguing was the sweetest, cheeriest thing in the world. Orchestral textures remained transparent and the Pacific Symphony sounded comfortable at tempos fast and slow. Guerrero shaped the whole, waiting for the big moments and then hitting them, though even then he never slammed, never exaggerated. Conducting without a baton, his style is remarkably economical -- a relief from the podium antics so often seen and heard these days. This "Messiah" could have come off as overly polite, except that it was too lively, too clearly purposeful, for that.

The solo quartet -- soprano Susanna Phillips (a recent winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions), mezzo Christine Abraham, tenor John Tessier and bass Robert Pomakov -- got into Guerrero's spirit, and sang with easy expression and unfussiness.

In short, it was a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon in the midst of the shopping season, and a gentle reminder of what this thing called Christmas is actually about.