In the city of San Francisco, a major Christmas tradition (whose seventeenth year was celebrated this past December) is the performance of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio Messiah by the American Bach Soloists (ABS) and the American Bach Choir, conducted by their Music Director Jeffrey Thomas. Thomas is one of this country’s leading proponents of historically-informed performances. In addition to maintaining an annual subscription series of concerts with ABS, he also sets aside two weeks during the summer for an Academy, which brings faculty from around the world to work with the next generation of historically-informed performers.
The annual performance of Messiah takes place in Grace Cathedral, one of the most impressive churches in San Francisco located at the top of Nob Hill. It is a prime example of Gothic architecture in the United States lit by impressive stained glass windows and hosting an eclectic collection of unique works of art ranging from objects from the fifteenth century to an altarpiece created in 1996 by Keith Haring. Today ABS released a Blu-ray Disc™ recording of this San Francisco Christmas experience based on recordings made in Grace on December 18 and 19 in 2014.
Grace clearly makes for a very grand setting for a Christmas tradition, which tends to be what audiences enjoy during a celebratory season. Nevertheless, the grandeur probably exceeds just about any setting that Handel himself encountered. For the record the first performance had nothing to do with Christmas. It took place on April 13, 1742 at the Great Music Hall on Fishamble Street in Dublin. Judging by the drawing included on the Wikipedia page for Messiah, this was the sort of place one might pass without paying much attention, were it not for a sign saying “Music Hall” above the entrance. However, success in Dublin led to success in London, first at Covent Garden on March 23, 1743 and, beginning in 1750, for a regular series of charity performances in the chapel of the Foundling Hospital. As can be see in the above illustration, this latter space could accommodate an audience of generous size; but, physically, it was probably more compact than Grace Cathedral.
The one problem that a space as large as the Grace sanctuary poses is the high degree of reverberation. Fortunately, microphone placement for the production of this video recording presents the music itself with a clarity consistent with the relatively modest ABS instrumental resources. However, there are moments of musical closure during which the attentive listener will have no trouble perceiving the reverberations holding silence at bay throughout the entire space. Those sitting even a modest distance from the ensemble are not always so fortunate when it comes to hearing the musicians rather than their reverberations.
Nevertheless, Thomas is clearly aware of the limitations of the space; and, as a result, he tends to opt for slower tempos than one tends to encounter in brisker performances by historically-informed groups, either in studio or in smaller settings. On the recording this results is a clarity through which one can enjoy the full extent of Handel’s skills at counterpoint. Equally enjoyable is the rich full-bodied sound of the American Bach Choir. None of this, however, should dismiss the well-informed and attentive phrasing and embellishment taken by all four of the vocal soloists, soprano Mary Wilson, countertenor Eric Jurenas, tenor Kyle Stegall, and baritone Jesse Blumberg.
Thus, the only real shortcoming of this video is that the camera direction very quickly runs out of ideas. Early in the performance there is an attempt to “tour” Grace, dwelling on the many fascinating visual sights it offers. After that, however, focus shifts back to the performers. This is likely to be of greater interest to attentive listeners, but there is a sameness that pervades the visual channel that finds itself at odds with the rhetorical diversity of the music that Handel wrote. The result is a very 21st-century “delivery” of a Handel experience that, every now and then, finds itself at odds with the more historically-based intentions of the performers.