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Photo by James McMilliam

Songs of Survival


Handel’s Messiah is the world’s greatest music. It defines the humanness of mankind. It proclaims the miracle of survival, and the process by which it may be attained. It takes us through the darkest tragedy civilization has ever endured, and when we can bear it no longer, it teaches us to yell a lusty "Hallelujah" and move on. At Disney Hall last week, a small choral ensemble from Canada voiced, with giggling delight, the news that "unto us a son is born." Not many minutes later, the solo voice of Andreas Scholl cut through to the base of our spine with the horror as that same son was "despised and rejected."

Nothing else in the repertory can boast an endurance record comparable to that of Handel’s masterwork. From the moment of its first performance some 265 years ago, the piece has never been off the charts. It exists beyond category. If it is "classical" — i.e., music for which you applaud only at the end and are entitled to shush your neighbors at other times — it is by some distance the most popular. If it belongs in the "pop" world — well, I’ve never met a rock musician who didn’t know what the "Hallelujah Chorus" was.

Whatever its niche, it has never been out of style. It continues to mean all things to all people. Today’s mail brings a new disc: Messiah Remix. I can’t wait to hear it.

Messiah endured a complex set of revisions during Handel’s time, and more after his death, including inflation to thousand-voice monster-choral showpieces of Wagnerian proportions. On successive days in mid-December, however, I heard versions that more or less respected the proportions of Handel’s original performances: chorus and orchestra of about 35; that seems to be the accepted proportion nowadays. In other respects, the performances were vastly unalike.

At Disney, Bernard Labadie had brought his marvelous small chorus La Chapelle de Québec, early-music specialists who combine clarity with warmth and beauty of tone unlike any other ensemble I’ve heard; they really became a fifth soloist along with the immensely gifted Scholl, and the splendid Karina Gauvin, John Tessier and Nathan Berg. Twenty or so members of the Philharmonic constituted the orchestra, and it was obvious even in the first performance (of four) that Labadie had impressed a fair amount of stylistic awareness on the group. Two nights before, there had been one of the Philharmonic Chamber Music Society concerts, Scholl in Handel arias and a Vivaldi cantata, and string players in two works of Bach, and the interpretive discrepancies — the ill-defined phrasing in the Bach works in particular — merely restated the obvious news that excellent symphonic musicians do not, on their own, automatically convert into Baroque stylists.

But the Labadie Messiah — egregiously misheard and misreported by Timesman Pasles — was one of those legendary occasions when music you think you know front and back turns into an exhilarating discovery. The control of texture was especially remarkable; you had the sense that you could look into the entire musical structure from top to bottom and discover new sounds at every level. Tempos were brisk, joyous and — in that harrowing sequence that limns the central tragedy and fills most of the center of the work — bone-scraping; the "Hallelujah" came as blessed and much-needed release.


The news at the next night’s Messiah — by a small unit from the Pasadena Symphony with 32 members of the Master Chorale led by Jorge Mester, featuring four commendable soloists — was less the performance (perfectly adequate, lots of cuts) and more the venue: the return to service of Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium, dark as a concert hall since its abandonment by its previous owners, the Worldwide Church of God, 10 years ago. The building now belongs to another religious group, the Harvest Rock Church, whose pastor, Dr. Ché Ahn, got things moving the other night with a greeting and a (blessedly brief) sermon relating how Jesus had come to him during a Deep Purple rock concert.

Consider the irony: Ambassador back in business with, of all inaugural offerings, Messiah. By the tenets of the Worldwide Church of God, with its strictly Old Testament fundamentalism (no concerts Friday night or Saturday, no music involving New Testament happenings), Messiah was on the proscribed list, along with Bach cantatas and a rather sizable repertory of pretty good music. One Messiah performance, small-scale and by a local group, did sneak under the wire: one transgression in 22 years.

Okay, it was good to be back. Time and neglect have taken their toll on those garish carpets, but the onyx still gleams on the staircases, and the water still splashes mightily on the sculpture outside. Over the years there has been continual outcry to return Ambassador to the concert circuit, and it is a splendid midsize hall: 1,300 seats, the size of many European symphony venues. I still remember the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra there in the early ’80s as one of the best orchestral sounds I’ve ever heard indoors. But during the years of Ambassador’s darkness, Disney Hall has been built, and REDCAT, and Zipper; UCLA’s Royce has been refurbished, and Glendale’s Alex. Balance that against the sad undercurrent of the decline in the classical biz; then look out your window and see if you notice the lines forming to get into Ambassador Auditorium, either as ticketholders or as performers. You can’t, you say?

Ambassador’s previous owners had the financial backing to run a major concert undertaking, with professional management and a hotshot full-time public-relations director; that’s what brought them Horowitz, Ella, the Berlin Phil and Pavarotti. So far Ambassador has a couple of upcoming concerts in February by the California Philharmonic Orchestra, which plays summertimes at the Arboretum. The program for February 11 consists of film scores including, according to the Web site, "Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons from The Tin Cup." Tickets for Pasadena’s Messiah, by the way, were pegged at a $105 top. There were lots of empty seats, more than I remembered from the good old days.


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