Andrew Davis brings his souped-up “Messiah” to National Symphony

Fri Dec 20, 2019 at 12:02 am
Andrew Davis conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in Handel’s Messiah Thursday night at the Kennedy Center.

Imagine Handel’s Messiah accompanied by a large wind band. You can hear it for yourself during considerable stretches of Andrew Davis’s recent edition of the perennial oratorio favorite. The English conductor, music director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, led the National Symphony Orchestra through his often curious orchestral augmentation on Thursday night.

Davis recorded this arrangement with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, where he still serves as conductor laureate, for a 2016 release on the Chandos label. In the scope of the orchestra and whimsical touches of percussion, it is reminiscent of the tarted-up version made by Eugène Goossens for Thomas Beecham, last heard from the NSO in 2013. Listeners who prefer their Messiah in the 18th century are advised to stay away.

At the same time, it can be fun to spend the evening waiting for the next unexpected color to draw a guffaw. A mellow clarinet solo introduces “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth,” and the Kennedy Center’s concert organ blares during “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs.” Snare drum, harp, cymbal rolls and crashes, tambourine shakes, glockenspiel, and bass drum rumbles mark various climaxes. At the broadest moment of the “Hallelujah” Chorus, a percussionist struck two wooden poles covered with bells like Turkish crescents on the floor in rhythm.

It surely adds variety to the instrumental textures, with the strings cut back to a few desks here or solo lines there, and often not playing at all. This works best in the choral numbers, sung in this concert with admirable vigor by about a hundred voices from the Washington Chorus. Davis should have been a little more careful with the recitatives and arias, where some of the wind and brass textures covered the smaller voices in his solo quartet, all making their NSO debuts.

Andriana Chuchman’s clarion soprano carried over the orchestration most easily. Her musical phrasing spun together the long lines of “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth,” and she had the most immaculate runs among her colleagues, on display in a fleet “Rejoice Greatly.” An even greater shame then that at  the midpoint of that aria, she and the orchestra ended up a half-measure crosswise from each other. Chuchman had to drop a couple lines but then recovered.

Bass Sidney Outlaw attacked his pieces with consummate diction and exceptional accuracy in runs and well-focused brilliance at the top of his range, all heard to pleasing effect in “Why Do the Nations.” Daniela Mack’s intense, reedy mezzo-soprano gave definition to the evening’s more emotional arias, like “He Was Despised,” while tenor Alek Shrader’s tone, compressed and slightly nasal, gave out at the top of the range in “Thou Shalt Break Them.”

Davis’s conducting was equal parts urgent enthusiasm and woolly lack of clarity, pushing the tempi in a number of pieces to the breaking point. Some of the choruses, like “Let Us Break Their Bonds,” sounded more rushed and breathless than one would hear from an early music specialist, yet with a bloated romantic orchestration. Between the driven tempos and the lack of familiarity with the instrumentation, the NSO’s performance was not uniformly unified or accurate, and some of the choral lines, especially among the sopranos, were not always clean.

It all added up to rather theatrical Messiah, which in many ways is exactly what Handel intended. Occasionally the quirks of Davis’s orchestration went over the top, as in the ovine bleat from the horns added to the chorus “All We Like Sheep,” like a bad memory from Leroy Anderson’s holiday pops favorite Sleigh Ride. The squealing piccolo over bassoon drones in the Pifa movement recalled a banda piece in a Verdi opera, and not in a good way.

With more than the usual cuts to the second and third parts plus the brisk pacing, the evening never lapsed into somnolence. For all its eccentricities the orchestration gave the big choral finishes of each part of the oratorio some extra oomph. The grand rallentando at the end of the final Amen seemed to stretch on for twenty-five measures, demanding and receiving an extended ovation.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.; 202-467-4600

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