Fort Worth — When in 1741, George Frederic Handel set Charles Jennens’ libretto to music and created his most beloved work, the oratorio Messiah, he couldn’t have known how profound of an influence he would have on musical traditions throughout the world for centuries to come. It took him less than a month to complete and has continued to endure for more than two-and-a-half centuries.
A musical staple for most companies during the holiday season, Handel’s Messiah retells the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ through Biblical text. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s artful one-night performance of the work Monday night served as a definitive example of why the oratorio continues to enthrall audiences ubiquitously, from laymen to music buffs alike.
Under the leadership of FWSO Associate Conductor Alejandro Gómez Guillén, the company navigated through Handel’s score with lively spirit and thoughtful interpretation. Guillén was keen on brisk tempi, which worked effectively through some movements, like the “Pastoral Symphony” and the chorus, “Glory to God in the highest,” but made others, like the ever-popular choral movement “For unto us a child is born” seem a bit too rushed. Nevertheless, his energized conducting gave the entire performance a lively drive that was appropriately expressive and neat while not losing its momentum.
The soloists performed beautifully, for the most part, although commitment to the stylistic principles of the Baroque era was not at the forefront of these interpretations. That said, tenor Scott Tilley’s “Comfort ye,” which appears near the open of the work, was lilting and lovely, while “Thou shalt break them” was authoritative and athletic. His rounded tone fit nicely over both. Bass Stephen Morscheck’s first arioso was looming, dark, and almost unsettling—as it should be—with a subdued, albeit solid, timbre. Though, his tone was sometimes lost under the trimmed down orchestra when it needed to resonate in the rafters, like in his final aria, “The trumpet shall sound.” Soprano Kimberly Watson was lovely and bright, with da capo ornamentations that bordered a bit on being too Romantic. Mezzo-soprano Kayla Nanto was the solo stand-out for this reviewer. Her approach, which was rife with warmth and thoughtful pathos, evoked the mellowed sensibilities of the time while still engaging viewers from the floor to the upper levels. Her “He was despised” was wrenchingly drawn out, while her coloratura in “O Thou that tellest good tidings” was bright and precise.
Much credit for this performance, though, must go to Chorus Master Allen Hightower for his preparation of the University of North Texas A Cappella Choir. Their contribution to the successful performance is undeniable, as they captured beautiful dynamics, counterpoint, and diction in every movement. The “Hallelujah” was the right amount of boisterous and simply sublime, but moreover, the choir’s attentive expression of the nuances of more obscure movements, like “And he shall purify” and “The Lord gave the Word,” lifted the presentation from simply being entertaining to artistically engaging.
For a lover of Baroque composers, like myself, any iteration of Handel’s Messiah is intrinsically endowed with merit, as it always works to bring audiences together for a communal, spiritual, experience. The FWSO’s interpretation, which included some omissions from the second and third parts in order to fit the performance neatly into two hours, was well-thought out and solidly delivered. Guillén’s conducting provided just the right amount of energy, and the UNT A Cappella Choir offered a beautifully solid foundation upon which a lovely night of reverence and music-making was built.