Every year, no matter how holiday-ful I am and no matter how early, it is not well and truly the Holiday Season until I hear George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.” While the tri-state area is rich in performances, there is none for me but that of New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO). The second performance was held on December 16 at the breathtaking Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark.
The Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart is enough to give anyone an edifice complex. As my companion and I were approaching a part of the state neither one of us had been to before, the misty rain was falling through the inky Sunday evening. Suddenly, out of the darkness we see the Basilica rising like Brigadoon from the mist. As impressive as a European Cathedral, this amazing space was more than 100 years in the planning and construction. It is the fifth largest cathedral in America and roughly the size of Westminster Abbey. We parked and stood in a sea of umbrellas, as we awaited the opening of the doors that towered over us, reminding humans of our place. “Messiah” attracts a diverse audience and we were surrounded by friends, even though we hadn’t met any of them before.
This year’s guest conductor for "Messiah" was Patrick Dupré Quigley, founder and director of Seraphic Fire, whose version of “Messiah” added some fresh touches to a Holiday classic. Among the gifts Maestro Quigley brought us include the soloists for the evening, who have also performed with Seraphic Fire. And what magnificent gifts!
Margaret Rood’s soprano sounds silvery and golden at the same time–so clear and beautiful and in her ornamentation, that I could imagine what her Queen of Night might sound like. Her full tones and light touch lifted us all to the dizzy heights of the vaulted ceiling. A major treat for the evening, Reginald Mobley is a countertenor whose beautifully rich voice has a caramel beauty and his upper register rivals the Cathedral’s organ in roundness and purity. As he moved easily among upper and lower registers and providing ornamentation in non-classic places, I was thrilled to hear this role as Handel had imagined it. Tenor Steven Soph gave us warmth, clarity, drama, and dynamic range that made singing for a cathedral as intimate as a concert for friends. Baritone Charles Wesley Evans was gravitas, thunder, and the wrath of Heaven with overtones of love. His professional life began with the American Boychoir, in Princeton, and later studied at Westminster Choir College, so this became a magnificent homecoming for Evans. In the various duets and even quartets, this group of soloists was truly thrilling–their blend was, well, Seraphic!
The music itself is not something you consider to have variation in anything but ornamentation, yet Quigley gave us a full measure of new ideas. Quigley had the soloists come forward in some of the chorus numbers, using the Montclair State University Singers, under the direction of Heather J. Buchanan, as a fifth soloist and a Greek chorus at once. Starting with Rood taking the initial lines of “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” with Montclair’s Singers bringing it home, to the penultimate “Since By Man Came Death,” given a barbershop quartet-feel, with the soloists evincing every bit of beautiful tension and resolution, as they went for Baroque (yeah, I went there). When the Singers came in with vivid energy, this became an oil painting come to life. The rafters were ringing, seraphim singing, and we were all in love with Handel’s Holidays.
Special highlights for me included the lift before “Iniquity” that Quigley gave to the chorus in “All We Like Sheep,” underscoring the perfidy of what was done to Jesus; Evans’ “Why do the Nations,” which was gravitas in motion; Mobley’s opening arc to Part Two “He was Despised,” which Quigley conducted sans baton, through “He Gave His Back to the Smiters,” giving us the full sense of the scourging Jesus underwent; and “Thou Shalt Break Them,” which in Soph’s glorious tenor became the dramatic statement of righteous vengeance to come, delivered with such nuance of dynamic tension on “shall BREAK them,” that it has now become my standard. Eric Wyrick’s violin solo with Rood made for a delectable duet, elevating and highlighting both as they collaborated. And it is the Superfriends quartet of “Since By Man Came Death” that I return to, time and again, in lingering enjoyment. When will the recording be released, NJSO? It’s time for another album and “Messiah” would be literally Divine!
Maybe it’s much too early in the game–but I thought I’d ask you just the same, as the lyric goes. Won’t you join me the weekend before Christmas for a world class “Messiah?” Visit www.njsymphony.org
for experiences to put under the Chrisma-Chanu-Kwanzaa-kah tree. The Winter Festival is coming and Xian Zhang has planned Music Speaks featuring Emanuel Ax, Dawn Upshaw, and Daniil Trifonov as soloists. Happy Merry and go now for the best seat selection to start your New Year.