So, why is the Dallas Symphony Orchestra performing Handel’s Messiah at Easter time instead of Christmas? While American audiences tend to associate Messiah with Christmas, it is actually an Easter oratorio. The DSO's current performance of it opened exactly 269 years and one day after it premiered in Dublin, Ireland.
Messiah chronicles the life of Christ, including His birth. This is why it is often presented during the Christmas holidays in America. However, the climax of Messiah concerns Christ’s death and resurrection, which Christians celebrate at Easter.
Handel made use of word painting, a musical technique in which the notes on the staff look like the word they describe. For instance, in "Ev’ry Mountain Shall Be Exalted," the notes of the word “hill” rise and fall as if sketching a small hill. If one drew a line connecting the notes for the word “crooked,” a crooked line appears. By this method, listeners can imagine a visual image that correlates with the music.
Messiah is one of the best-known works of classical music, yet there is no singular, definitive version. Even Handel varied performances of his paramount piece. In the Dallas Symphony’s offering, Maestro Helmuth Rilling presents a very clear, precise version. Trills, grace notes and dynamics are less prevalent. Rilling leaves out much ornamentation familiar to audiences, as well as several numbers. These include “Death Where Is Thy Sting,” “Thou Art Gone Up On High” and “But Thanks Be to God.”
An addition that may not be familiar to listeners is a countertenor, or a male alto. Listeners unfamiliar with countertenors may be surprised to hear a robust man sing like a woman. Countertenors do not use the falsetto voice, but a full, rich voice one associates with a contralto. An untrained voice has a vocal range of about one and one half octaves, about the range of most hymns. Trained singers utilize exercises, which extend their ranges to three octaves or more. A countertenor voice, then, is simply the result of natural vocal range combined with extensive training. It is not the result of surgery.
Countertenor Daniel Taylor’s voice is both powerful and agile, thrilling listeners with a range of glorious high notes to rumbling deep notes. His performance is memorable. Tenor Richard Croft has a voice with the depth and warmth one expects from deeper voices, giving his singing a wonderful richness. Bass Shenyang sings powerfully, with extremely clean runs. Soprano Robin Johannsen has a stage presence that sparkles. Her voice shimmers with agility.
The orchestra joins in this precision. The trumpet solo is particularly brilliant. The orchestra seems a bit heavily weighted by violins, overriding the other strings, but that may have been simply a matter of personal taste.
The star of the evening is the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Chorus. David N. Childs serves as Guest Chorus Director. While other choirs often stumble clumsily through Messiah, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Chorus performs deftly. The chorus sings complicated counterpoint lines with meticulous accuracy. Endings are clear and crisp. Certain pieces pulse with rhythm; particularly “Behold the Lamb of God” and “All We Like Sheep.” As pieces end, Rilling holds the silence so listeners can hear the harmonics of the choral voices reverberate throughout the hall.
Overall, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s current Messiah is a version that is both muscular and precise. It relies on clarity and focus more so than ornamentation and dynamics. The chorus and countertenor Daniel Taylor are particular standouts. Dallasites are very fortunate to have such an excellent ensemble of highly trained professionals who move through this completed work with prowess and purity.