The City Musick

at the James Simpson Theater, Field Museum of Natural History

December 21


Handel & Haydn Society Chorus and Period Orchestra

at Orchestra Hall

December 22

When Handel began work in late August of 1741 on a new oratorio brilliantly set to scriptural texts by librettist Charles Jennens, his imagination took such fire that he completed the entire work, including parts and orchestration, in three weeks. The work, Messiah, was originally composed as the grand finale to a season of oratorio concerts that Handel would premiere in Dublin during Holy Week of 1742. The composer rearranged the work, however, for various sets of performers and circumstances for virtually the rest of his life.

The first excerpts of Messiah were heard in America on Christmas Eve 1815 at the first concert of the newly formed Handel & Haydn Society of Boston. Three years later, the society presented the American premiere of the complete oratorio, and by 1854 it had begun performing the work as an annual Christmas tradition–one that quickly spread throughout North America and has continued to this day.

Every holiday season sees a glut of Chicago-area Messiah performances of all shapes, sizes, and talents. But this year there were two Messiahs presented on period instruments by important conductors with very different ideas about the piece: Elaine Scott Banks and Christopher Hogwood.

One could argue that it’s unfair to compare these two conductors–Hogwood, after all, founded his British-based Academy of Ancient Music back in 1973, after a stint with David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London. His career took off in the late 70s and early 80s, when his name became synonymous with the movement for “authenticity,” which sought to present the music of well-known composers on the instruments for which it was written instead of their modern-day counterparts. Before Hogwood, such an approach was adopted only for a very narrow range of music (mostly Bach and before) and only by a small number of performers and ensembles.

For better or worse, period-instrument performances are increasingly the standard by which other performances are measured, and the range has been extended to Beethoven and even more recent composers. Although several key figures actually helped to bring this about, Hogwood’s hundreds of best-selling recordings are what largely introduced the movement to the average record-buyer. The movement was enhanced by the academy’s frequent tours, by Hogwood’s extensive guest conducting, and by his unique ability to discuss the movement unpedantically, even entertainingly.

Elaine Scott Banks was, up until last year, a cellist for Lyric Opera, and she founded the City Musick in 1985, sitting around her living room with a few friends. That first year they presented three concerts at a small north-side church, and the first of them was Handel’s Messiah. The soloists were unmemorable, the playing out of tune. Yet the debut revealed a woman with a musical vision and drive so compelling as to be contagious. The group began to come to life within an extremely short time. By spring 1987, Banks had conducted the U.S. premiere of Mozart’s Requiem on period instruments here in Chicago to a sellout crowd , and there were throngs outside trying to get in. A year later saw Chicago’s first fully staged period-instrument opera, Mozart’s Idomeneo, set against the backdrop of a tank of sea creatures at the Shedd Aquarium. This season’s audience for Messiah, performed twice in full theaters with 1,000-seat capacities, represents almost seven times the number who heard the work only three years ago when the City Musick first performed it. The big question, of course, is: how much artistic growth has taken place within those three years? Judging from the recent City Musick Messiah, that growth has been enormous.

Even though there are still many awkward moments of poor string and wind intonation, the group has become a deeply expressive instrument for Banks. Always firmly in control, she never ceases to amaze with the quality and quantity of her musical ideas. Although sometimes the ideas themselves may be out of context, she is not afraid to try new things, and to take chances in performance. If she stumbles now and then, it is still far better to try something new than to stagnate in the interest of accuracy. As she becomes a more experienced conductor, hopefully she will discover that accuracy and balance need not be sacrificed to expression.

Besides the sheer passion that Banks brings to the work, her ideas about tempos are very convincing. The overture (done in a lovely French style) and the familiar choruses zipped along at a lively pace, yet they never seemed rushed, and Banks was always willing to slow down for reflection when appropriate.

I have never heard the words of this work ring out more clearly than they did in this performance. The choir was small, only 21 singers (Handel usually employed between 30 and 40), but their sound could be quite large when necessary. Indeed, some times they were too loud–emphasized syllables were accented almost as if being given hammer blows. Choral balance was a big problem since vocal timbres were not evenly matched, and the one strong section, the altos, stuck out like a sore thumb. Still, the phrasing was beautifully executed.

All four soloists had interesting voice qualities, but Paul Elliott was extraordinary: no tenor in the world could do more with this work than he did. I have never heard Elliott in better voice than he was for this performance–everything went right. His timbre was gorgeous, his technique flawless. Runs and ornaments that so often trip tenors were executed perfectly, and he never lost a profound yet subtle sense of drama and passion.

Bass Wilbur Pauley, however, who has an impressive lower range but a weak upper range, struggled to keep in time during vocal runs. The usually climactic aria “The trumpet shall sound” was consequently very anticlimactic (Pauley wasn’t helped by a natural-trumpet player who not only marred his notes but generally played with no feeling, phrasing, or expression). It is difficult to understand Pauley’s presence in this Messiah quartet–of the four, he was the only one with a hammy sense of drama and a 19th-century operatic technique. In its place that would have been fine, but a period-instrument Messiah was not the place.

That celebrated countertenor Jeffrey Gall took the alto role was something of a curiosity, since Handel usually employed a female alto for Messiah. But then Handel also used all male sopranos and altos for the chorus, which was not practical for either Banks or Hogwood. Gall’s technique is indeed impressive, and for those who last heard him struggling to keep up with Marilyn Horne and June Anderson in Lyric’s bizarre production of Handel’s Orlando a few seasons ago, it was a revelation. Still, for all of Gall’s obvious dedication and artistry, I found the sheer timbre of his voice very rough around the edges–he lacks the smoothness of a Steven Rickards, for instance. Gall’s voice sometimes sounds squeaky or even like a dog’s bark when he is shifting register. Still, his rendition of “He was despised” was a particular highlight of this performance, mixing great power and subtlety. Gall sounded as if he had tears in his voice, and the color, being so soft, was very beautiful. It was only when he sang loudly that problems arose.

Soprano Ellen Hargis, whom I was hearing for the first time, was a pleasant surprise: she has a formidable 18th-century vocal technique and wonderful color and expression. Hopefully, she will be engaged for other performances–solid early-music sopranos are rare.

I had been a bit concerned about the Handel & Haydn Society Messiah, performed the following night at Orchestra Hall. I had heard the society’s Messiah at Symphony Hall in Boston in December 1987, and this modern-instrument performance with a large chorus was overblown and not particularly interesting. I can’t even remember the name of the conductor, but certainly he left no lasting impression. I also knew that Hogwood had accepted the society’s artistic directorship with the express purpose of converting it to a period-instrument orchestra, and that this Messiah would be the first time that that change would have been in effect. Frankly, I expected disaster–and on tour, no less.

Fortunately, however, many of the players are experienced in playing period instruments, so Hogwood didn’t have to start from scratch. In fact, from the first downbeat of the overture it was apparent that this was a group at least as skilled as Hogwood’s academy. How that was achieved in such a short time is a mystery, but achieved it was.

The overwhelming characteristics of Hogwood’s Messiah were a transparent clarity and shimmering brilliance in all instrumental and vocal lines (unlike Banks, Hogwood interrelates these to achieve a unified sound texture) and excellent balance and accuracy. Musically, the performance was nothing short of a total revelation–details that are usually glossed over suddenly emerged in such a way that I found myself thinking, “So that’s what Handel had in mind.”

The H & H Chorus was much scaled down, to 34 singers, and all the proportions were exactly the same as in Handel’s Foundling Hospital performance of 1754–this is the kind of exacting detail Hogwood is famous for, Here choral texture was one, and all sections were strong, each striving for the same vocal sound.

The dazzling orchestral effects in this Messiah lined up perfectly with the corresponding vocal lines. Winds, noticeably buried in the City Musick performance, sounded through the strings while never overpowering them. It would be difficult to imagine a more precise Messiah ensembling, or a more precise musical clarity and balance; every phrase was audible, and the sections responded as one, whereas the City Musick string lines were often flabby.

The vocal quartet was quite good, but there were two standouts. Carolyn Watkinson, who sang the alto part, has a very quiet voice with little power, but she has one of the most beautiful alto colors I have ever heard. All of her solos were well executed, and she never lost her rich, dark sound. Bass David Thomas stood out because of his extraordinary vocal technique and the even distribution of sound across his entire range. Less memorable but certainly more than up to the task were soprano Sharon Baker and tenor Stanford Olsen.

The ideal vocal quartet for Messiah would have been the alto and bass from the Hogwood Messiah and the tenor and soprano from the Banks.

What principally differentiated these two Messiah performances were Banks’s and Hogwood’s contrasting approaches. Both are valid, and remind me of two classic modes of literary interpretation. Exegesis takes out of the text the meaning the author intended, and eisegesis reads into a text an interpretation the author could not have foreseen. Hogwood represents the former, and Banks the latter. When I hear Banks conduct Messiah, I find myself marveling at her interesting, unusual ideas. When I hear Hogwood conduct Messiah, I marvel at the genius of Handel–or sometimes, better yet, I get so absorbed in the music that I lose myself.