'Messiah' performance flunks goose bump test

December 23, 1993|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing Writer

"Goose flesh," says Webster, "is a roughened condition of the skin in which the papillae are erected by cold, fear, etc."

One of the etceteras left out of the definition is "Messiah," the mega-oratorio composed by George Frederick Handel in the midst of the greatest single burst of energy in music history; a 21-day span back in the late summer of 1741.

No doubt about it, the two sinfonias, 16 recitatives, 17 arias and 19 choruses that constitute "Messiah" contribute a prodigious number of bumps to the world's annual goose-flesh harvest.

Therein lies the problem with the "Messiah" turned in by conductor Ernest Green, his chamber-scale Annapolis Chorale and the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra at Maryland Hall last Saturday evening.

Was it enjoyable? On balance, yes. From the chorus, there was nimble, energetic singing most of the time. With the exception of the bass who merely waved at more notes than he sang correctly, the solo arias ranged from passable to distinguished. There was some nice orchestral playing, notably by the continuo cellist and obbligato trumpet.

But goose bumps? They were few and far between. I know. I counted.

My papillae acted up only twice in all of Part I, once at the 53-minute mark from a magical change of affect engineered by mezzo-soprano Trudy Weaver at "And the tongue of the dumb shall sing," and again moments later, when soprano Carolene Winter sprinted through the "Rejoice Greatly" minefield with spritely grace and beauty.

The chorus didn't get on the scoreboard until the intense dotted rhythms of "Surely" emerged in Part II. "And the Lord hath laid on him" shimmered beautifully, and excitement was in the air at "Great was the company." We'll also count the inevitable goose bumps that came courtesy of the majestic "Hallelujah." If my heart rate hadn't quickened there, I'd have dialed 911.

Ms. Weaver got to me again at "He gave his back to the smiters," and tenor James Katchko conveyed true heartbreak in "Thy rebuke."

Part III was a complete wash, consisting as it did of a surprisingly blah "Redeemer Liveth," a truncated, uneventful "Trumpet Shall Sound" and a concluding "Amen" that nearly fell off the stage for lack of correct pitches.

Only eight truly affecting interludes did I hear in a 2 1/2 -hour masterpiece that offers the potential for magic in practically each and every bar.

Why so few golden moments? Technical matters partly; insecure orchestral entrances, sloppy cadences and battles over tempo do keep the papillae at bay.

But what I really missed was the sense of discovery that can only come from a willingness to scrape off "Messiah's" barnacles from stem to stern in a painstaking search for new beauty and meaning.

Nimble and energetic aren't enough. I want ruffles and flourishes. I want incandescence. I want goose bumps.

Maybe next year.

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