It takes a village to perform Handel’s “Messiah”: a nimble and speedy chorus, an accomplished orchestra, four virtuoso soloists, and a keyboard player who is equally adept at the harpsichord and the organ. Most of all, it takes a conductor who does considerably more than directing musical traffic — one who gives shape and meaning to the entire production.
Fortunately, the Seattle Symphony has just such a maestro in the visiting conductor for this year’s “Messiah”: the British-born Matthew Halls, who was artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival for five years and is now an international opera and symphony conductor. Halls not only has a thorough mastery of the “Messiah”: he has it memorized, a phenomenon I’ve never seen before in more than four decades of full-time concertgoing. With no score between him and the orchestra and chorus, Halls was free to devote every ounce of his energy into direct communication with the musicians, producing a performance full of energy, accuracy, and nuance. And what a feat of memory!
Halls conducts with his whole body, with clear expressive gestures. In Friday’s opening performance, he brought the players’ normal vibrato almost to a standstill, in quest of the kind of orchestral sound 18th-century audiences might have heard. His communication with the Seattle Symphony Chorale was clear and direct, and the singers (prepared by director Joseph Crnko) responded with great energy.
The “Messiah,” an oratorio that tells the story of Christ’s life, is not usually performed in its entirety, and it wasn’t here: conductors choose which solo arias and choruses they want to include. Halls follows traditional practice with a few exceptions. The soprano aria “If God be for us,” for instance, is not always heard in Christmastime productions, but its inclusion here may have had something to do with the excellence of the soprano soloist, the agile and crystalline-voiced Nola Richardson. With her creative ornamentation, she was a standout among the four soloists, but all of them had highly distinctive voices and interpretations.
The tenor, Thomas Cooley, set the bar high with the production’s first vocal solo, the glorious “Comfort ye, my people,” and later with a powerfully dynamic “Thou shalt break them.” Mezzo-soprano soloist Meg Bragle brought power and clarity to “But who may abide the day of His coming.” Baritone soloist William Berger was particularly convincing in “The trumpet shall sound.” And the excellent guest harpsichordist/organist, guest musician Jonathan Oddie, added some great touches, including little upward leaps in the treble during one recitative to accompany the line, “Then shall the lame man leap as an hart [deer].”
The production proved that no matter how familiar a masterpiece like Handel’s “Messiah” may be, gifted interpreters can bring it to life in a unique way that makes the music forever new. And to that, what can we say but “Hallelujah”?
Handel’s “Messiah,” Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale, with Matthew Halls conducting; more performances 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 22; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; tickets from $40; 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org