Tuesday, August 6, 2019

‘Manchurian’ intrigue at opera colony


The premise of The Manchurian Candidate, subject of a novel, two movies and now a terrific new opera seen this summer at upstate New York’s Seagle Music Colony, has always been shocking. However, in 2019, one could ask whether this tale is a relic of the Cold War or has some modern relevance.    

The cast in rehearsal for The Manchurian Candidate.
Photo: North Country Public Radio
In Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, five American soldiers are kidnapped by Russian and Chinese Communist agents and subjected to mind control experiments aimed at unleashing them as assassins within the United States. The story reflected the West’s anxiety about the various forms Communist aggression might take – including “brainwashing,” which according to one account could transform a man into “a living puppet – a human robot.”

The opera, with music by Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Puts and libretto by Mark Campbell, opens with a single note, repeated hypnotically, that will become the brainwashing theme. (The performance was accompanied by two excellent pianists, John Cockerill and Eric Frei, conducted by Jennifer McGuire)

Three U.S. Army officers and two privates are seated in an interrogation room. Incongruously, eight ladies in flowered dresses and hats are also in the room – the products of their hallucinating minds which, we are told, believe they are at a party given by “the Ladies Garden Club of Northern New Jersey.”

The chief interrogator shows off the prize – Sergeant Raymond Shaw (sung by the commanding Thomas Lynch), who is “triggered” by seeing the queen of diamonds playing card, and on command kills the two privates. “He can kill and kill again without memory of it. He has no guilt or fear,” sings the interrogator (Katherine Kincaid).

The 1962 movie. 
The music enters unsettling territory, with the “garden ladies” singing a pretty choral background as terrible acts unfold. “Americans are easy,” sings the interrogator, to musical snippets of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The other men, including Captain Ben Marco (the very affecting Andrew McGowan) do not react, being in trance states.

Subsequently, Shaw and Marco return to the U.S., greeted as “heroes” at the airport by Shaw’s relentlessly ambitious mother, Eleanor Iselin (Ashlee Lamar), and her husband, Senator Johnny Iselin (Reno Wilson, a handsome guy who manages to be appropriately oily in this character).

Iselin is aiming for a vice-presidential nomination at the upcoming Republican national convention, and is riding a campaign of McCarthy-like anti-Communist fervor. Meanwhile, Marco is disturbed by strange dreams, echoing his interrogation and brainwashing.

Baritone Lynch and tenor McGowan convincingly portray the anguish of men who are being torn apart psychologically by toxic political forces. Lynch will kill again, destroying his happiness with the woman he loves, Jocelyn Jordan (beautifully played and sung by soprano Melaina Mills), before he is stopped.  

Soprano Lamar unleashes a formidable stage presence and a tornado of emotion as Eleanor Iselin, especially in her soliloquy at the end of Act I. Believing her plans for her husband are being blocked, her rage and frustration comes across as a combination of Lady Macbeth and Mama Rose, overlaid with political rhetoric – “We are at war. Choose between right and freedom.”

However, things are not what they seem in this story – on many levels, including Eleanor’s – and there are no easy solutions. As the storylines wind to tragic conclusions, the opera’s final lines are, “I’m scared,” and “I am, too.”   

Director Richard Kagey’s pace never flags, propelled by music that uses compelling dissonance accented by moments of tonal beauty. Designer Jim Koehnle’s set – brown flats on a turntable that effectively changes scenes – also uses five 1950s-style television screens to broadcast several scenes as they are taking place. Costume designer Pat Seyller’s work particularly shines in the women’s beautifully-patterned 1950s dresses.

This work was presented at Seagle as a venture of its American Center for New Works Development, which has in the last few years supported such exciting new operas as Roscoe and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The Seagle Colony itself, now in its second century in Schroon Lake, N.Y., is a summer training program for emerging opera singers. 

So is The Manchurian Candidate, reimaged as an opera, relevant to our times? We might think that the work was inspired by the controversies surrounding Russian influence on President Trump and whether he is in thrall to Vladimir Putin’s government for some yet-unknown reason. (“Americans are easy.”)

Perhaps Puts and Campbell were thinking of Trump’s rhetoric (“Make/Keep America Great”) and fervid rallies. (The political slogan in The Manchurian Candidate is “Our Time Has Come.”)

However, the 1959 novel was made into feature films in 1962 and 2004 – and this opera premiered at Minnesota Opera in 2015, well before Trump’s win in the 2016 election.

Throughout the opera, its relevance to today’s political scene is astonishing. Clearly demagoguery never disappears. It is part of the human condition and can only be fought to a standstill.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Silent cries

In my last post about attending My Fair Lady as a child, I said that part of the theatergoing magic was the "chatty hubbub" in the lobby before the show.

When I entered the auditorium recently at the Baruch College Performing Arts Center for a performance of Crying Hands by Norway's Teater Manu, I had the opposite experience.

Never have I entered a theater full of people (about 200, including the actress Marlee Matlin) where there was so little noise. Teater Manu is a sign language theater and about 90% of the audience were deaf people. Flo, Ryan and I dropped our voices to a whisper, instinctively reacting to the quiet environment, then realized that was ridiculous.
From left, Eitan Zuckerman, Ronny Patrick Jacobsen,
 Ipek D. Mehlum in Teater Manu's production of  Crying Hands.
Although I did not hear much talking, the air was alive with hands conversing in sign language and people making the sounds of words. People were seated, yet dancing through a language I didn't understand. I was definitely in the minority and it was not a comfortable feeling.

I knew that I was about to see a play presented in both sign language and oral narration, but now I vaguely wondered if there were different customs among the deaf in the theatergoing experience itself. Flo recommended the play since she is taking a course in "deaf culture." It was the first time I had heard that expression.

Artistic director Mira Zuckerman introduced Teater Manu and the production, explaining that there had been some problem with lights. After she finished, the audience raised their arms and wiggled their hands. It was the first time I had seen deaf people applaud. 

The set we were viewing was sparse - a gray rear wall and six chairs, two bearing Nazi uniforms, two with civilian clothing and two with prison clothing. The signing actors, Ronny Patrick Jacobsen and Ipek D. Mehlum, sat on two chairs. A third signing actor, Eitan Zuckerman, stood at stage left and narrated in sign language. "Voice actor" Kjersti Fjeldstad sat at stage right and narrated in spoken language.

Ronny Patrick Jacobsen and Ipek D. Mehlum
Crying Hands was created by playwright and director Bentein Baardson from interviews with 10 deaf survivors of the Holocaust. Their experiences were distilled into the two characters onstage - Hans (played by Ronny Patrick Jacobsen) and Gertrud (Ipek D. Mehlum) - but not fictionalized. "Everything we tell you has happened," Zuckerman said, telling us that the two characters "could have been anyone" and asking us to consider whether it could happen again.

Hans is a deaf boy who tells us that as he grows up in Berlin, he is fascinated by motorcycles and becomes good at maintaining them. Attracted by Hitler's vision of a strong Germany, he joins the youth wing of the Nazi party. He enthusiastically goes on group rides with other boys in uniform and casually mentions that sometimes they would "have fun teasing and harassing Jews."

Gertrud, who can hear, grows up in a middle-class family and is interested in science from a young age. She becomes a doctor, interested in healing "society and people," and begins to explore theories of how to improve the human race. The Nazi party, she believes, is "the new doctor for the German people" and she becomes a proponent of eugenics to "improve the gene pool."

As they tell their stories, photos curated by video designer Simon Valentine are projected against the back wall, sometimes accompanied by sound effects. Clearly, Baardson wants to include the hearing audience. Sometimes the sound effects, such as the rumble of motorcycles, had a tactile component that could be felt by the deaf viewers.

As we hear of Hitler consolidating his power, both actors face the back wall, where a photograph of a giant Nazi rally is projected, and slowly, chillingly raise their arms in the "Sieg Heil" salute.

Then, things begin to turn.

Voice actor Kjersti Fjeldstad 
Hans is dismayed when his corp of deaf soldiers is disbanded because Hitler doesn't want disabled troops. "Eugenics" means that people deaf from birth must undergo forced sterilization since "anyone who carries a hereditary disability may not reproduce." Hans escapes that fate (members of his family are not so fortunate), but is sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Gertrud, who says she "did not consider Jews a threat," finds her professional and social position upended when it is discovered she had a Jewish grandmother. Now she is part of the "final solution" and put on a train to Auschwitz.

Hans and Gertrud are forced into survival mode and witness scenes of horror and torture, some involving children. This section of the play is the most difficult to endure. It is here where we learn of the terrible reason for the play's title. For this hearing listener, the steady tone of  voice actor Fjeldstad made it almost bearable. 

One reason Crying Hands  is so powerful is that it is a tale of Nazi Germany where the protagonists started as the oppressors, then ended up in the opposite space.

Could it happen again? Of course. There have been genocides since World War II - Cambodia, Rwanda. Perhaps plays such as Crying Hands and groups such as Teater Manu appeal to the best in humanity sometimes by showing us the worst.

At the end of the play, the hearing members of the audience clapped, the deaf members raised their hands and waved their fingers -- and also stomped their feet. It was the first time I had experienced an audience for whom vibration was more important than sound. There's a lot to learn about deaf culture.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

A "Fair Lady" for all generations

We had cameras, of course, in 1961 but not cellphones so there is no selfie of a woman and a seven-year-old girl outside Broadway's Mark Hellinger Theater just before a matinee of My Fair Lady.


 

It was my first Broadway show. Fifty-eight years later, My Fair Lady was a young man's first Broadway musical - a time-spanning dose of historic theater magic that brought generations together.

Before My Fair Lady, Mom had taken me and my little brother to a couple of local shows in Queens, but Broadway involved dressing up and taking the subway into "New York" (Manhattan) - an intensely exciting process.

Theater-going (and theatrical personalities) run in my family. In the Depression, my mom (who would later become a fashion writer) and her sister would buy $1.00 balcony seats and have $1.00 spaghetti dinners at Sardi's. They saw such luminaries as Laurence Olivier and Katharine Cornell.

Last weekend, I filled in the young man (Ryan) on the plot of Pygmalion, the Shaw play on which My Fair Lady is based, (leaving room for suspense), and I'm pretty sure my mom (Florence) would have done the same, being a natural teacher. Florence's granddaughter (Flo), also in the selfie, has been to considerably more shows, beginning with The Lion King.

My Fair Lady opened in 1956 and was an instant, gigantic hit. The story of Eliza the Cockney flower girl transformed into "a lady" by phonetics professor Henry Higgins along with Frederick Loewe's music, Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics, Moss Hart's direction, Rex Harrison as Higgins, Julie Andrews as Eliza, made it the toughest ticket on Broadway for years.

By 1961, the principals were played by suave British actor Michael Allinson and the first American to play Eliza, the charming Margot Moser, who is still alive. The show was at the magnificent Mark Hellinger Theater, with its soaring golden lobby and rococo interior. I absorbed the chatty hubbub in the lobby, the walk to our seats, the darkening auditorium and then - those slashing eight notes that start the overture.

I was thrilled and seduced by that masterpiece of a score, from "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" through to "The Rain in Spain" and "With a Little Bit of Luck." That afternoon began a lifelong love affair with the theater.

Today, Lincoln Center Theater uses a proper 30-piece orchestra, conducted by Ted Sperling, and Flo and Ryan felt the same excitement: "That's the overture, Ryan." As the violins swept into the melody from "I Could Have Danced All Night," I was overcome by memory and emotion.
From left, Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins, Laura Benanti as
 Eliza Doolittle and Allan Corduner as Colonel Pickering in "The Rain in Spain."
Harry Hadden-Paton and Laura Benanti were our Higgins and Eliza, and my appreciation of their performances changed throughout the show. They are closer in age (both in their late 30s) than the characters Shaw wrote (Higgins is in his 40s and Eliza is 20, as were Harrison and Andrews), which meant that the lovely Benanti and her glorious soprano came across as very much a woman, not a girl, as she is referred to in the script.

I missed the older/younger dynamic, but this Fair Lady focuses on Eliza's discovery of her own strength and self-reliance. I thought Hadden-Paton might be too handsome and "nice," but he found Higgins' edge and delivered an intense "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" at the end that showed a man falling apart as he realizes the depth of his feelings for a woman.

Both of the principals brought fire to Eliza's declaration of independence ("Without You,") and a scene of intellectual jousting over how they can possibly relate to each other now that they are on more-equal terms.

I particularly enjoyed Allan Corduner's warm, kind Colonel Pickering and Linda Mugleston's steel-spined Scottish Mrs. Pearce. The great Rosemary Harris, at 91, gave us a Mrs. Higgins (Henry's mother) of grace and wisdom. Danny Burstein was the force of life itself as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza's father -- a sly street philosopher who undergoes his own transformation when he gets an unexpected windfall.

Christopher Gatelli's choreography shone during Alfred's send-off into marriage. "Get Me to the Church on Time" was a rousing music-hall number and such a delightful riot that such odd directorial touches as can-can girls and a cross-dressing bride simply seemed part of the joyful ruckus. Ryan particularly liked this number.

Director Bartlett Sher's production was properly sumptuous. Catherine Zuber designed costumers in shades of grey, silver, lavender and pink. Michael Yeargan's sets most spectacularly featured a revolving, mobile set of Higgins' townhouse that allowed actors to travel through three interior and exterior areas while performing. Ryan noticed particularly Donald Holder's lighting which Holder said referenced "the color and quality of early electric light while also reveal[ing] the cool exteriors of central London."

Our post-show discussion focused on Sher's change in the the always-problematic ending and the question of whether Eliza comes back to Higgins. Flo wondered whether the final scene in Higgins' study actually took place in his imagination - an unusual, but valid, interpretation. I thought the ending was illogical, but perhaps symbolic. Ryan felt the show wanted to end on a message of Eliza's empowerment but still wanted to have a final send-off between the two characters. He also noticed how Sher's blocking (stage movement) had the two circling each other in their final scene.

We talked about Shaw's ideas about class and society, about how men and women get on with each other - and about how it was all set on a brilliant comedy-drama and glorious songs.

If you don't "get" theater, you don't understand how something called "a show" can actually be life-changing, but My Fair Lady is one of those shows. There are reminiscences all over the Internet about its effect.

It's the perfect "first time," with the potential to light up the mind and heart for a lifetime. The theater gods -- as they do -- arranged everything abso-bloomin'-lutely perfectly.

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Hamilton birthday rap


How does a mom beg, steal borrow or barter
A gift for her only daughter
Now turning twenty-one
Show her history and a night of fun?

A musical named Hamilton
Sellin' tickets by the metric ton
They're the price of an airfare
Take a trip to another age

The mom loves history
Not rap or hip hop
Mom says check out this old song
the daughter says, what?

The World Turned Upside Down.
That's the one, says mom, with violins and flutes
That's the tune they played
On the Yorktown parade
When the British went mute.

Nah-unh says the girl
It's in this great show
Lemme play it all for you
Mom says whoa!

They play it all again and again
Sing the songs from Miranda
A time-breaking story for us today
With the music and the colors,
It's a whole new play.

Fast forward to the day.
They start at Fraunces Tavern
Downtown Manhattan.
In the late 18th century,
The room that they sat in.

The centuries meet
They walk past Federal Hall
Where Washington took the oath
And started it all.

They arrive soon at Trinity.
Alexander, Angelica,
Philip, Eliza
Resting for infinity.

Up at Times Square
At last they're gonna walk in
The Rodgers theater
So excited they're barely talkin'.

Daniel Breaker starts the show as Burr
Man what a performance
From suave to anger-murder
We clutch hands
We get the whole sense.

Michael Luwoye
Yeah, we say Whoa yay
A Hamilton with passion
When brilliance was in fashion.

Lexi Lawson does Eliza
Alex's wife with her sister to advise her
Mandy Gonzalez, Angelica
Sees in Alex a new America

The story of the nation
Born from war with the King
Euan Morton as George
You rebels don't get a thing

The American miracle
Seen at heart-pounding speed
The dancing, the costumes
Light the words and seal the deed.

Tired, happy, sated
They leave the theater slowly
In awe of the work
Now none of it's dated.

Make Hamilton and all of
the rest of them proud.
Go high, don't go low
and do it out loud.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

In Nashville, It's Still Grand


On a trip to Nashville this summer, I finally made it to a performance at the Grand Ole Opry, but it was a long time coming.

Elvis at the gates of Graceland
On the evening of Aug. 16, 1977, I paid homage by driving past the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, home of the Opry for 31 years. The radio was playing Elvis songs, as was every other station on the dial, no matter the format - rock and roll, blues, gospel, country, easy listening.

I had arrived in town a few hours before, heading east on the road across America, interviewing for reporter jobs at newspapers along the way. Earlier that day, I'd visited the Memphis Commercial Appeal and driven past the musical-note gates of Graceland, just to see the legendary house where Elvis lived.

Upon arriving in Nashville, I phoned the Banner's editor, Bracey Campbell, and identified myself as calling from the Associated Press, since I was working for AP Broadcast in New York at the time. 

"You must be calling about Elvis," he said. "Why, Mr. Campbell?" I responded. "He's dead!" the editor said. "Oh, Mr. Campbell, that's terrible, Elvis being dead and all. We had scheduled my job interview for tomorrow," I said. This was, understandably, the least of Mr. Campbell's concerns. "Honey, I got more here than I can say grace over. I can't give you your job interview. "

So that night, not having much else to do, I drove around Nashville, twirling the radio dial. Even then, the Grand Ole Opry was no longer at the red brick Ryman, having moved in 1974 a few miles out of town to something called Opryland. Downtowns were deteriorating and theme parks with car-friendly acreage were on the rise.


Upon my return, I discovered Opryland was long gone and my conference was booked into a huge hotel called the Gaylord Opryland Resort, but the theater was right next door.

The Opry started in 1925 as a live broadcast on WSM radio featuring an hour of "barn dance" music. It followed a classical music program, and one night announcer George Hay said the grand opera program would be followed by the "grand ole opry."


Riders in the Sky
It was a Saturday night staple for decades, where Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl and Ernest Tubb reigned. Today, the Opry runs four nights a week in the same live-broadcast format, mixing the biggest stars in all sorts of music genres with up-and-comers. 

Tickets were remarkably easy to get for a Saturday night. It's like a vaudeville or TV variety show, with each act doing 10-15 minutes. We took our seats in the pews, a style transferred from the Ryman. I was beyond excited, ready to experience American musical history.

However, not being real country music fans, my daughter and I agreed we would each get a point if we had heard of a particular act.

The host of the opening segment was Jeannie Seely, a dynamic, 78-year-old veteran of the Opry, tough and funny as hell. But there was also a male radio announcer reading broadcast ads for such products as Springer Mountain Farms chicken between sets.

Seely introduced The Sisterhood, the duo Ruby Stewart (daughter of Rod Stewart) and Alyssa Bonagura, whose soaring harmonies were more rock-tinged folk than classic country. They just made their Opry debut last year. 

Banjo player Mike Snider took the stage with his group, beginning with self-deprecating humor, assuring us that his group would not "over-entertain" us. Snider, of course, then launched into banjo riffs that proved his National Banjo Champion credentials.

Next up was an old-timey Western group, Riders in the Sky, complete with chaps and amusing patter. I was starting to warm to a show that clearly welcomed performers in their 70s who still had a lot to give. 

A couple of times, between other acts, the Opry Square Dancers filled me with joy as they pranced through their paces in teal satin costumes on a stage that really didn't have a lot of room for square dancing. The Opry stage production, however, was absolutely top-notch -- especially the sound, which transmitted every note and voice with absolute clarity. 

The people sitting around us were from Tennessee and Iowa, enthusiastically into the music. By the way, the Opry is apparently perfectly all right with people snapping cell phone photos during the show, as I looked around and saw lots of folks doing just that. Other acts were Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top X-Press, bluegrass group Dailey & Vincent, TV star Charles Esten and comedian Heather Land.  

For me, the best came at the end. Charley Pride is 84 and one of the very few black country music stars -- a situation that occurred when he started out in the 1970s and exists to this day. In her autobiography, Loretta Lynn pointedly said she thought Pride was good for country music, to prove "it belongs to everybody." But as I looked around the theater, it appeared the audience was overwhelmingly white.

Still, Pride is a big star, yet he can amble onto the Opry stage, smoothly sing a couple of songs and uphold decades of history by himself. 
Jamey Johnson

The final singer's name had only crossed our path the day before, as we were waiting for breakfast at the local Cracker Barrel. A friendly young man from Mississippi insisted we listen to a video of Jamey Johnson, who looks like he just came down from the mountain.

Johnson and his acoustic guitar stood at the WSM microphone and simply held the audience spellbound with his deep baritone singing voice and storytelling. He sang one of his hits, "In Color," about a grandfather looking through the black-and-white photos of his life, saying "you should have seen it in color." I swear even men were weeping.

I had set aside any thoughts of politics as I attended the Opry, wanting simply to experience the music on its own terms. Johnson expressed the best of country music: stories about people that ring true. "In Color" may or may not have been based on an actual person, but the people listening to it clearly were walking through the histories of their own families. 

I ended up with two points (Charley and Jamey) and Flo had one (Jamey). In the next post: we attend a musical and spiritual experience with an audience of a different color. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

A family affair

Mozart and Sly Stone may not have much in common besides music, but it was Sly's hit "It's a Family Affair" that ran through my head after Distinguished Concerts International NY's (DCINY) latest concert, at Carnegie Hall.

The performance, titled "Perpetual Light: The Requiems of Mozart and Duruflé," was the second in DCINY's tenth-anniversary year, which is playing on the concept of light in  a couple of its 20 programs.

As I wrote in this post about singing in DCINY's "Messiah," the company invites choirs from around the world to perform in New York, maintains a regular orchestra and engages soloists.   

At "Perpetual Light," the 250+ singers on stage came from 20 choirs (U.S., Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, U.K.). Many family members were in attendance, buoyant with pleasure at seeing a relative onstage in the glamorous venue.

At intermission, I met two ladies from Louisiana, there to support an 87-year-old mother-in-law. The program listed the First United Methodist Church Chancel Choir from Lake Charles, La., which also had a 92-year-old member in the concert, the ladies said. 

A young man named Chaz Adams, from San Francisco, was there for his mom, Ingrid Gosney of Kalama, Wash., not too far from Portland, Ore. (Portland Choir). For her, performing at Carnegie Hall was "a dream come true," he said.

The invited choir members support the concert financially. To its credit, DCINY staff maintain a professional but warm atmosphere while handling 3,500-4,500 singers a year. You could call it a family.

The real bottom line lies in this question: is the music of high quality? The answer, with a couple of qualifications, is "yes."

DCINY supports and enhances its amateur singers with solidly professional conductors, orchestra musicians (especially concertmaster Jorge Ávila) and soloists. If my experience in December is any guide, the choirs generally have been working on the music at home for weeks before coming together to rehearse in New York for a couple of days before the concert.

For me, the Mozart Requiem towers above all others in its high drama and emotion. There is not much going gently into that good night in the work that Mozart was composing even on his death bed.

Maestro James M. Meaders set an exciting pace in the "Dies irae" ("day of wrath") and brought out the lovely melodic line in the "Hostias" section. Soloists Maribeth Crawford (soprano), Ceclia Stearman (mezzo-soprano), Shawn Mlynek (tenor) and Patton Rice (bass) navigated their parts expertly, but Crawford projected most fully into the hall.

The choir sang with real feeling, but often the precision wasn't quite there that exists when a group sings together regularly, and it seems the singers gave way to the temptation to blast. I recall from my experience that maintaining piano and varying the dynamics, according to the conductor's rehearsal instructions, sometimes was forgotten in the excitement of the moment. 

However, the singers really seemed to gel in the Duruflé, conducted by Jean-Sébastien Vallée, with its echoes of Gregorian chant. Stearman really shone in a sublime "Pie Jesu," scored for accompanying solo cello and organ, and the soprano section stood out in the "In Paradisum."

One advantage of these family events is the presence of young people in the audience, and (a few) in the choir. A girl, perhaps 15, sat in front of me, intently absorbing the music. Across the aisle sat one girl with blue hair and another with fuschia hair. It may not be explicitly stated in DCINY's mission, but the "parent" organization is also raising the classical music children of the future.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Messiah II - slim and dancing

A great work such as Handel's "Messiah" -- especially if it has been around for nearly three centuries -- will inevitably be subject to different interpretations as it passes through musical styles and eras.

My second "Messiah" of this Christmas season looked back toward the baroque 18th century, while the first had more in common with the Romantic 19th. This time, the venue was St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Mamaroneck, N.Y., celebrating its bicentennial year.


Music Director Eric Milnes led a chamber orchestra of about 15 playing on period instruments, and a choir of about 25, compared to the 400 singers and 70 instrumentalists performing at Carnegie Hall last month in a concert produced by Distinguished Concerts International NY (DCINY).

As I wrote about "Messiah" I, making a Carnegie Hall debut in this work was a thrilling and very special experience.

"Messiah" II was astonishingly different.

At Carnegie, the DCINY chorus, consisting of more than a dozen choirs from around the world, produced a mighty and magnificent sound, aided by conductor Jonathan Griffith's inspired antiphonal placement of singers at the ends of the first balcony.     

With just three rehearsals, it seemed to me that Griffith was, first of all, striving for clarity of expression as he melded the choirs. There were unique characteristics, such as his emphasis on taking silent breaths. Can you imagine 400 people all audibly taking a breath at the same time?

"Messiah" at St. Thomas Church, Mamaroneck, N.Y.
At St. Thomas, the church was full -- but this audience numbered about 220, compared to 2,800, an intimate living room compared to an awe-inspiring hall. 

Milnes, a baroque specialist who has conducted "Messiah" many times, has put his individual mark on this work. He conducted from the harpsichord, whose gentle, ethereal sound complemented the warm sonic color of the baroque instruments. 

With a much smaller group and more time for rehearsal, Milnes conducted a "Messiah" that was quite brisk. This "Messiah" danced, with rising and falling dynamics that shaped phrases like an urgent conversation. It was as if we were speaking one-on-one -- "Have you seen the glory of the Lord? Let me tell you about this. It's wonderful!"

He also varied the articulation. One example that resonates in my head was the phrase in the sublime chorus, "Worthy is the Lamb." The next few words are "that was slain." I've only ever heard the phrase sung legato, but Milnes had us detach the last three words - "Worthy is the Lamb. That. Was. Slain." Now there is a poignant contrast between the two phrases.      

Here's Milnes conducting the Hallelujah Chorus in rehearsal at St. Thomas, with a tympani solo at the end that I've never heard before. 


Milnes' collaboration with a stellar group of soloists and skilled instrumentalists produced  a "Messiah" that received a tumultuous ovation at the end. However, this interpretation also touched people directly in the heart.

After the applause and bows, as musicians were packing up and audience members shrugging into their coats, a woman came backstage with tears in her eyes, just looking to find someone to whom she could say, "that was profoundly moving. I have never heard 'Messiah' like that."