Review: Music of the Baroque’s Performance of Handel’s "Messiah" Was Musical Inspiration and History Lesson

By Bob Benenson, Third Coast Review
December 02, 2021

Music of the Baroque is one of the few orchestras focused specifically on Baroque-era legends such as George Frideric Handel. So attendees expecting a masterly performance of Handel’s Messiah oratorio at the Harris Theater Monday were not disappointed—even with a minor quibble with the first half’s acoustics.

The ensemble was on top of its art in this, the first Music of the Baroque performance of Messiah in a decade. The orchestration is predominantly strings, though with the clarion sounds of principal trumpet Barbara Butler resounding during key passages in Parts II and III.

This is, of course, a mostly choral piece with the musicians in a supporting role. With principal guest conductor Nicholas Kraemer leading from his harpsichord, the orchestra played loud enough to be heard but not so loud as to compete with the four soloists and chorus under the leadership of guest chorus director Benjamin Rivera.

The performances by soloists Sherezade Panthaki (soprano), Allyson McHardy (mezzo-soprano) and youthful tenor Brian Giebler were all worthy of the material that Handel premiered in Dublin in 1742. But bass-baritone Matthew Brook’s performance will linger longer in memory. The powerfully built Brook, who has sung professionally for nearly four decades, bolstered the strength of his vocal performance with dramatic facial expressions that reflected the profundity of the Biblical verses he was singing.

Brook also uniquely avoided the acoustics quibble mentioned earlier. At least from a seat in the right orchestra, most vocals during Part I projected in what felt like a somewhat subdued manner, even giving consideration that the chorus at the back of the stage was singing with masks on because of COVID protocols (the soloists did not wear masks while performing).

Yet after the intermission, during Parts II and III, all voices sounded more resonant and enveloping. It was almost as though someone had turned up the volume or given a halftime speech beseeching everyone to sing louder. The timing was good, because it is toward the end of Part II that the ensemble rises to the ubiquitous Hallelujah Chorus.

It can be difficult to find something new to say about a piece that has been performed heaven knows how many times over nearly 280 years. Fortunately, Music of the Baroque, which takes its teaching role seriously, provided some seriously interesting history in the pre-concert videos featuring Kraemer being interviewed by Jennifer More, the orchestra’s director of marketing and communications.

Part I is about the birth of a redeemer, and some of its text comes from the gospels of Saint Luke and Matthew that pronounce the New Testament story of the Nativity. And Handel’s Messiah is in fact most often performed in the weeks before Christmas. But (little known to many of us) the text chosen by Handel’s librettist Charles Jennens for Part I is mainly from the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Malachi, written many centuries before the Christian Era.

As Kraemer explained, the first two vocal passages, Comfort Ye and Every Valley Shall Be Exalted, refer directly to the exile of the Jews to Babylon and their return to Jerusalem, which took place in the 6th century B.C. Even the passage, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel,” originated in the Book of Isaiah.

This continues in Part II, which focuses on the persecution, death and resurrection of Jesus, with passages from the New Testament intermingled with passages from the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Psalms. Historians cited by Kraemer state that the Old Testament prophets were very much living in their now and their predictions involved the society and geopolitics of their era. Yet the apostles of the New Testament took their phrases as prophecies of the coming and life of Jesus, a belief system that Jennens infused into the libretto of Messiah.

It is fascinating historic context to go with the appreciation of one of classical music’s most enduring compositions.