This Is the Best ‘Messiah’ in New York

12.06.18
Julian Wachner
The New York Times

If you grew up thinking of Handel’s “Messiah” as a sweet, staid pageant, a holiday ritual involving a little nap and a stand-and-deliver “Hallelujah” chorus, the forces of Trinity Wall Street offer the gritty, fearless cure, from Dec. 13-17, with what stands apart as New York’s best. (The Dec. 16 performance will be webcast live at 3 p.m., then available on demand.)

“We want to touch people,” Julian Wachner, Trinity’s director of music and the arts and the conductor of its “Messiah,” said in a recent phone conversation. “We want it to not be your grandmother’s ‘Messiah.’”

That desire can be a cliché — after all, no one says they want to perform your grandmother’s “Messiah” — but Trinity, more than anyone else, actually makes it happen, expanding your sense of what the piece can be and do.

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“We’re very much believing it’s Baroque music,” Mr. Wachner said. “There’s dance, there’s energy to it. There’s not this sense that you do one movement, wipe your brow, turn your page, and do the next movement. Opera was the basis of everything that Handel knew, and oratorio was a development through that.”

Trinity continues to experiment with its performance. Last year, Mr. Wachner switched the traditional genders of all the solos, inspired by the strengths of the roster he had at the time. (Imagine a bass singing “He was despised,” traditionally taken by a female alto.)

There was, Mr. Wachner admitted, a bunch of hate mail in the aftermath, but also a lot of responses that spoke of how special the experience had been and how much it revealed about the score. This year, some but not all of the assignments will be gender-switched, for a version neither fully experimental nor fully traditional.

Perhaps even more important, while Trinity Church is closed for two years of renovations, “Messiah” will be performed in the far more intimate St. Paul’s Chapel. “Trinity elicits hushed tones,” Mr. Wachner said. “There is a separation, like at Carnegie Hall. At St. Paul’s, it’s more of a communal feeling.” This fresh location promises to emphasize what is most memorable about Trinity’s presentation: its visceral drama and elemental energy.

As it happens, Mr. Wachner was first exposed to “Messiah” as a boy chorister at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, which often is the first high-profile performance of each holiday season (this year, Dec. 6) and sets a generally high, graceful standard for the weeks that follow.
 
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