Patrons at the sold-out, acoustically-magnificent Walt Disney Concert Hall gave a standing ovation with thunderous applause after Los Angeles Master Chorale maestro Grant Gershon gave the final wave of his hand to end one of the most famous of all compositions, Handel’s Messiah.
Composer George Frideric Handel (and his librettist, Charles Jennens) made this world a heaven-on-earth when he composed Messiah in 1741 at the age of 56. Originally, the annual performance of Messiah took place in spring, at Eastertide. It was only after Handel’s death in 1759 that it became associated and firmly embedded in the Christmas season.
Jennens – a wealthy patron – juxtaposes extracts from both the Old and New Testaments to represent the basic narrative of Christian redemption. Rather than a biographical sketch of the life of Jesus, Messiah concerns the very idea of divinity becoming manifest in human history. Hence the title “Messiah,” and not “The Messiah.”
The composition requires four soloists and Gershon decided to use four capable soloists, all regular members of the Master Chorale -- Soprano Elissa Johnston (Gershon’s wife), mezzo soprano Adriana Manfredi, tenor Jon Lee Keenan, and baritone Vincent Robles.
Handel himself introduced changes during the revivals he led in his final years, taking into account the strengths or limitations of particular soloists had had available. So there really is no ultimate version of the score for Messiah.
That being said, Gershon studied an early edition of the score published in 1777 as he was preparing for this performance. He felt that the most important decision came down to which soloists sing which arias.
“You tailor that to the singers you have at hand, just as in Handel’s own time,” Gershon said. “Above all, I wanted to balance the solo duties as equally as possible, so that all the soloists have something meaningful to do in both halves of the concert.”
Also interesting is Handel’s strategic placement of the most popular “Hallelujah!” chorus at the end of Part Two (of three parts). He was remarkably able to avoid a sense of anti-climax in what followed in Part Three – the trumpets sounding during the bass-baritone’s aria near the end. This was brilliant.
The Grammy-nominated Master Chorale, founded in 1964, is recognized as one of the city’s cultural treasures and one of the world’s premier choruses. Some say it’s the world’s most innovative choral group, especially under the helm of Gershon. They are the resident chorus at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Gershon chose 36 of its members to perform the Messiah and the ensemble sounded Sterling. They blended extremely well, especially during the choral pieces that required many layers of sound.
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