Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) continued its annual tradition of seasonal programming with the first of three performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio Messiah, presumably using the original version of the score, performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742. Ragnar Bohlin, Director of the SFS Chorus, took the podium for a presentation in which vocalists significantly outnumbered the musicians. What appeared to be the full resources of the SFS Chorus performed against a drastically reduced (but historically appropriate) string section, augmented by two oboes (Eugene Izotov and Pamela Smith) and a bassoon (Stephen Paulson) for the continuo. That continuo also included both harpsichord (Robin Sutherland) and organ (Jonathan Dimmock), as well as cello (Peter Wyrick) and bass (Jeremy Kurtz-Harris). There were also brief appearances by Michael Israelievitch on (contemporary) timpani and trumpeters Mark Inouye and Mark Grisez. Vocal soloists were soprano Sydney Mancasola, mezzo Lauren Segal, tenor Brian Stucki, and bass Adam Lau.
This was definitely a performance in which the SFS Chorus was the center of attention, although, in spite of their numbers, Bohlin always seemed to find just the right dynamics to balance the instrumentalists. It would probably be fair to say that the chorus was also the center of attention for Handel. Over the course of two and one-half hours (30 minutes more than the duration given in the program book), SFS Chorus got to exercise its chops in both homophony and polyphony. The blending in the former category was consistently spot on, always focused on the overall sonority rather than the contributing elements. On the other hand contributions of the individual parts came across with crystal clarity in the polyphony, particularly in the strongest rhetorical gestures of stretto and given-and-take exchanges between different registers.
Things were more uneven when the soloists were involved. The strongest of them was Lau, which was probably just as well, since his airs tend to have the strongest dramatic impact. His committed internalization of “Why do the nations so furiously rage together” was so strong that he delivered the entire performance without opening his score. (Would anyone really expect him to read all the notes in his part for that air?)
It is worth noting at this point that Lau should not be a stranger to opera lovers in San Francisco. In 2011 he sang the role of Don Basilio in two different productions of The Barber of Seville, a student-run performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and that summer’s Merola Opera Program presentation. The following year he then shared a Schwabacher Debut Recitals bill with tenor Daniel Curran.
Mancasola’s “role” in the oratorio was more angelic, which she realized with gentle dynamics but not much rhetorical reinforcement. Rhetoric was much stronger coming from both Stucki (who has to launch the whole affair) and Segal; but the latter lapsed too frequently into coarse sonorities and never seemed quite certain how she wanted to pronounce the text. The greater problem in much of the solo work was an over-indulgence in added embellishments, which often made the music feel as if it was dragging out longer than necessary.
Indeed, duration was an across-the-board problem. While Messiah may be a long oratorio by the clock, there is no reason for it to feel like one. However, for all of the stimulating moments, particularly in the chorus work, it seemed as if Bohlin was always in danger of lapsing into sluggishness. There were several easily detected cuts, but they seem to have been imposed after taking stock of just how much clock time would be involved. Like any oratorio, Messiah tells a story; but last night’s pacing ended up diminishing the impact of the narration of that story, which pretty much defeats the purpose of performing the oratorio in the first place.