Worthy is Music of the Baroque’s first “Messiah” in a decade

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
November 29, 2021

With a nearly two-year respite of choral music concerts in general and Handel’s Messiah in particular, music organizations in Chicago are making up for lost time.

Handel’s beloved oratorio is clearly back following the 18-month void of choral performances due to Covid-19 health restrictions, with three high-profile organizations, along with scores of amateur choirs and churches, marking the Christmas season once again with Messiah.

Music of the Baroque was first out of the gate Thanksgiving weekend, presenting Messiah Sunday evening at the North Shore Center in Skokie. The work will be repeated Monday at the Harris Theater.

Even for those numbed by the oratorio’s omnipresence during the holiday season, the involuntary break from Messiah allows one to appreciate Handel’s extraordinary work anew. For all its familiarity, the narrative of Christ’s birth, life and resurrection spans an astounding range of musical and contrapuntal ingenuity, melodic richness, and depth of expression, with a humanity and emotional impact that appeal equally to believers, skeptics and those in between. And rarely has the consolatory message of rebirth and renewal felt more needed or of the moment.

Oddly for a Baroque music organization, Sunday’s performance led by Nicholas Kraemer was MOB’s first Messiah since 2011. And while not all elements were consistent or convincing as a unified whole, enough important things were right to make the evening a worthy if qualified success.

The most obvious compromise had to do with the singing by the MOB Chorus. As prepared by guest chorus director Benjamin Rivera, the ensemble singing was technically assured, nimble in fast passages with words usually clear, though without the richness and tonal gleam of the past.

But the wearing of masks throughout inevitably muted the presence and sonic impact of the choruses, even in this intimate acoustic, and too many rousing moments—including “Hallelujah”—remained earthbound. The coverings also seemed to affect the blend, with the chorus too often sounding like four well-drilled sections rather than a cohesive ensemble.

The quartet of soloists proved consistent, delivering some superb if occasionally idiosyncratic moments.

Tenor Brian Giebler was a late substitution for Richard Croft. If his theatrical stage persona as a kind of tousle-haired, sensitive poet at times seemed to channel Reginald Bunthorne from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience, Giebler’s singing was terrific. His youthful, silvery tenor brought out the expressive essence of each aria, and he handled the coloratura of “Every valley” and “Thou shalt break them” with unruffled ease.

Veteran bass-baritone Matthew Brook’s straightforward approach and brawny voice imbued his arias with incisive drama, as in “Why do the nations,” and “The trumpet will sound,” the latter spiced by Barbara Butler’s clarion instrumental obbligato.

Allyson McHardy proved admirable in her moments, wielding her light mezzo sensitively in “But who may abide.” In “He was despised,” the Canadian singer provided a highlight of the evening with a rendering of moving and understated poignance.

Sherezade Panthaki’s well-upholstered soprano brought apt brightness and penetrating vocals to the proceedings with mostly fine singing, apart from some sharpness on top.

Yet, while all four soloists provided some free decoration and grace notes in their arias, Panthaki too often went miles over the top with high notes and cadenzas that seemed interpolated from La Sonnambula. The diva-ish vocal antics were especially jarring—and uncollegial—in the duet “He shall feed his flock,” upstaging McHardy’s more tasteful and restrained singing. Panthaki mostly tamped down the showbiz after intermission, and both “How beautiful are the feet” and “I know that my Redeemer liveth” were the better for it.

Conducting from the harpsichord, Nicholas Kraemer’s direction was surprisingly variable in a work he has led countless times. There were routine patches in Part One, and the performance didn’t really seem to settle into a consistent rhythm until after intermission.

Even then, there were repeated interpretive oddities from MOB’s principal guest conductor that felt forced and unconvincing, like the steep dynamic extremes in the opening Symphony or the brake-slamming tempo fluctuations in the “Hallelujah” chorus.

Other passages just sounded bizarre, not least the choppy, herky-jerky phrasing in the pastoral Pifa—as if to say, “There’ll be none of that Nativity sentimentality here, move along.” There is such a thing as musicians over-thinking a familiar work in a way that doesn’t necessarily benefit the score or the performance.

Handel’s Messiah will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Harris Theater.