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Handel’s ‘Messiah’ by Handel and Haydn Society: A Spiritual Journey and Holiday Oratio

The Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus performs their 170th Messiah, led by artistic director Jonathan Cohen.
The Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus performs their 170th Messiah, led by artistic director Jonathan Cohen. By Courtesy of Robert Torres
By Dailan Xu, Crimson Staff Writer

The Handel and Haydn Society held its annual “Messiah” concert on the weekend of Thanksgiving at Symphony Hall as a Christmas oratorio for the holiday season. The concert was directed by Handel and Haydn Society’s new artistic director Jonathan Cohen, featuring soprano Joélie Harvey, countertenor John Holiday, tenor Stuart Jackson, and bass-baritone José Coca Loza, along with the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus. Their performance was a holy experience that incorporated solos, duets and chorus together, creating a sacred holiday spirit that brought solace to the audience.

The premiere of Handel’s “Messiah” was in Dublin, Ireland in 1742. The “Messiah” concert has been an annual tradition of the Handel and Haydn Society since 1854. This year’s “Messiah” performance is the first concert conducted under Jonathan Cohen. The original texts of “Messiah” were taken by Charles Jennens from scripture passages, telling the story of the redemption and birth of Christ, death and resurrection, and redemption and response from the believer in three parts.

Cohen was lively and full of spirit, conducting both the orchestra and the chorus with expressive and animated gestures. He gave emphasis to notes and succeeded in capturing the complexity of the dialogue between voice and instruments. Cohen’s enthusiastic smile and comedic gestures to the chorus brought a light-heartedness and holiday spirit.

Harvey, a Bolivar Soprano, was truly a glowing star at the concert. In her majestic red gown, Harvey’s lyrical voice filled the Symphony Hall with vibrating high notes that spoke directly to the heart of the audience. Her change of tempo was effective and light with a commanding control over her timbre and expression. As Harvey looked out into the audience, her eyes glowed with hopefulness and her voice brought a sense of sacredness to the music.

Holiday, proved to be a terrific countertenor, made a striking appearance with a purple cloak on top of yellow that immediately evoked a religious momentum. His voice was soft, high, relaxing, yet far reaching with the way it projected into the audience with much conviction. His voice also had an astonishing storytelling quality that delivered moral lessons from the religious texts like a pastor, which had the audience hold their breath and even close their eyes to feel the smoothness of his voice. Holiday beautifully portrayed Handel’s tonal painting with vibrato and tuplet.

Jackson and Loza’s performances were slightly less exciting. Perhaps because of the fast tempo and furious rage the bass-baritone needed to portray, his voice was often overpowered by the orchestra. His portrayal was serious and the low notes had a richness which formed a stark contrast with the violin strings. In addition Jackson had very clear diction, as he spit out the consonant, and strong emotional communication to the audience. The same overpowering feeling of the orchestra happened for tenor Jackson even when he made his first entrance. Nevertheless, his trills were well-performed with a joyful smile and had swift back and forth with the orchestra.

The chorus’s high quality performance wove layers of voice parts into a single unified voice. The chorus as disciples echoed the soloists and portrayed different emotions, sometimes joyful and other times forceful and robust, that resonated in the Hall. Harvard’s Radcliffe Choral Society and Holden Voice Program director Elizabeth Eschen also made an appearance in the chorus.

During the famous chorus section of “Hallelujah,” the entire audience stood up, following A tradition begun when Messiah was first performed in London in 1743 when King George II, so moved by the piece, stood and the crowd followed.

Ultimately, the Handel and Haydn Society took the audience on a spiritual journey right at the start of the holiday season. The soloists, chorus, and orchestra came together to paint the scriptures with their voices and instruments that washed over the souls of each listener. For 170 consecutive years, the annual performance of “Messiah” has reinforced the musical legacy of Handel and the beautiful transmission of music and religion.

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