“A Thanksgiving Messiah- Music of the Baroque” reviewed by Julia W. Rath

By Julia W. Rath, Around the Town Chicago
November 30, 2021

What can be more gratifying than a concert featuring George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” during Thanksgiving weekend? Music of the Baroque brought solemnity and force to Handel’s sacred oratorio this past Sunday evening at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, in Skokie. Conducted by Nicholas Kraemer, who also played harpsichord, the ensemble featured the distinctive voices of four soloists plus the fusion of chorus and orchestra. This magnificent performance lasted almost three hours (including the intermission) and never dragged. In part, this had to do with the supertitles above the performers that allowed all of us in the audience to follow the libretto directly.

Sherezade Panthaki (soprano), Allyson McHardy (mezzo-soprano), Brian Giebler (tenor), and Matthew Brook (bass-baritone) were exceptional, each in their own way. Panthaki paired sonority with carrying power. Her expressions were the most animated of the foursome, and she was the only one who did not refer to the choir book. McHardy’s mezzo was deep, soulful, and stirring; her gorgeous evening gown mimicked a flamenco dress with a modernized style and all in black. Giebler’s tenor exhibited a radiant clarity, while Brook thrilled the audience with his vigorous vibrato. Guest chorus director Benjamin Rivera worked closely with the chorale singers and brought out the best in the prose. What was particularly interesting to see was how well the choir sang with their masks on at all times.

All that said, it was an odd performance. My guest thought it had to do with COVID distancing on stage, but I thought it was just odd staging. It seemed as if the stage was not deep enough to handle the orchestra, the choir, the conductor, and the four lead singers in the most efficacious way. Rather than having the four vocalists sit side-by-side facing the audience throughout and simply rise in place whenever they were to perform their solos, each of them sat to one side of the stage, facing the orchestra; and when it was their turn to sing, they would walk to the front near the conductor as the orchestra played. Once they finished singing, they returned to their seat. At first, I found all the walking back and forth a bit distracting; it sapped some of the show’s dramatic energy from the musicians. But after awhile, I got used to the ambling and came to expect it. What I did not care for, however, were the two moments when a soloist would turn their back to the audience to watch the chorus sing behind them. In my opinion, it would have been better had they still looked forward when not actively singing.

Another oddity was watching this one musician bring a music stand into the wings, take out his horn and play it, then retreat backstage with his instrument, and finally remove the music stand: all this while the orchestra was playing. Half the audience probably did not see him; but since my seat was off to one side, he was noticeable to me and to many others. My thought was that he accidentally showed up late that evening, and it was important for him to play his part. My guest, however, felt that he and his horn were secretly supposed to be featured, as in the blaring Trumpet of God. Therefore, by playing from the wings, he wouldn’t be taking anything away from the four soloists. Whether his appearance offstage was deliberate or an afterthought, it would have been better had the music stand been set up ahead of time and then taken backstage during the intermission. That way, we would have only seen the musician come and go with his instrument, and his actions would not have been so distracting.

A final oddity made the performance highly memorable. This took place when Giebler, upon finishing his tenor part at the end of Part II, sang the lines from Psalm 2:9: “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Before he walked back to his seat, he forcefully and audibly slammed shut his choir book. We will never know whether this was a rehearsed or spontaneous act on his part, but it provoked a reaction from the audience: a bit of an uncomfortable giggle and some twittering. To my mind, the noise humanized the concert, as it mimicked a potter’s vessel breaking. Traditionalists, however, would have been none too pleased. Handel considered his Biblical-inspired libretto sacrosanct. But perhaps the composer had a sense of humor too.

In all, the Music of the Baroque’s rendition of Handel’s “Messiah” was nicely done and capped a special Thanksgiving holiday weekend, the first time in two years when extended families were able to get together in person since the spread of COVID. Christians would have found the oratorio particularly moving, while those of the Jewish faith would have watched this concert on the first night of Hanukkah. But regardless of one’s faith community or one’s religiosity (or not), there is no doubt that this was an impassioned performance and well worth seeing—and enjoying.

“A Thanksgiving Messiah” was performed at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, in Skokie, on Sunday, November 28th. This was followed on Monday, November 29th by a performance at the Harris Theater, in Millennium Park, 205 W. Randolph Drive, in Chicago Both concerts began at 7:30 p.m.