Today we have a story of two Messiahs.
That is, two performances of Handel's oratorio, Messiah.
On Thursday, I attended a performance by members of the New York Philharmonic, the Westminster Symphonic Choir, and solists, at The Riverside Church. The church is a gothic structure, build in the late 1920s in the style of the Chartres cathedral. It's a huge, cavernous space, and a very impressive one. Still, from my seat in the back of the second balcony (yes, I should have gotten there earlier, to be more to the front of the balcony) the sound of the soloists was a little muted — the orchestra and chorus came through fine.
The performance was good, but not top-flight. I liked the soloists, especially the soprano, Dominique Labelle, and especially near the end of part III, in "If God be for us, who can be against us". And the mezzo, Stephanie Blythe, did a nice job in "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion". But it was the chorus that left me cool. In my favourite chorus of the piece, "For unto us a child is born", they should be rejoicing. Yet no joy came through in their performance of it. They just made most of it seem like a well-practiced performance that they've done hundreds of times.
They did perk up for the "Hallelujah!" at the end of part II, probably because they know that's what everyone's come for, and what most are waiting for expectantly. Their performance of that chorus was quite fine. And then came the exodus — maybe a quarter of the audience left during the brief pause between part II and part III, 30 minutes before the end. Hm.
The friend who attended with me also went to another Messiah on Friday night, at Carnegie Hall. It was the Musica Sacra chorus and orchestra, with soloists — and organ (the performance at Riverside Church didn't use the organ, which was a pity because we were right under the organ pipes up there in the second balcony, and it would have been impressive). Musica Sacra also used a countertenor instead of a mezzo-soprano. My friend reports a much livelier performance,with a chorus that put more joy into it than the one the night before. And, of course, the Carnegie Hall acoustics are unmatched. (See the New York Times review of Wednesday's Musica Sacra performance.)
Apart from the exodus at the end of part II, another thing that surprised me at Riverside Church was how many people around me couldn't leave their mobile phones alone. A teenaged girl in the row behind me spent the beginning of the concert doing text messaging, until her mother told her to stop because we could actually hear the clicking of the keys for quite a distance. The man to my right, who otherwise appeared to be interested in the music, pulled his phone out to check messages many times during the evening. And the man to my left spent pretty much all of part III staring at his phone, doing who knows what. I saw other glows here and there as well. None of them were talking, and I didn't hear any phones ring, but I just don't get why people can't just leave it alone for two and a half hours.