|Photo by James McMilliam|
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
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”
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.