Handel's Messiah conductor and Phoenix Symphony music director laureate Michael Christie talked about storytelling before his breathtaking interpretation of the Christmas oratorio lit up the Ikeda stage at Mesa Arts Center last night. As brilliant in its tender communication of human suffering and triumph as it is in its consummate musicianship, this version of the Messiah, that is scheduled in four more Valley venues this week, is not one to miss.
Not settling for a haze of beautiful music
Christie began the pre-show interview by acknowledging that preparation for The Messiah is a huge undertaking. Considering the "hundreds of years of performance history and the many cycles of interpretation," he takes "personal responsibility" for shepherding an engaging, accessible, current-day rendition.
Aspiring to soar beyond "a haze of beautiful music," Christie returns again and again to the idea of open-armed, compassionate storytelling through Handel's exquisite music. The result is otherworldly.
As the Mesa audience settled into the Ikeda's pristine acoustics, they were enveloped by familiar messages of exaltation, glory, purity and illumination that weave through the libretto and score. The first half of the music-filled story depicts a joyous announcement of Christ's birth.
Details of note in that first half included Eckart Sellheim's lovely harpsichord adornments. The often under-utilized, period instrument's celestial strains hearken listeners back in history to Handel's day. Each soloist also nestled introductory bits of the resonant story into the audience's ear. The exultant tones of tenor Javier Abreu. The deep, almost omnipotent round notes of bass-baritone Dashon Burton . The truly angelic tidings in the fabric of countertenor David Trudgen's voice. The jubilant, dancing runs of soprano Celena Shafer. Each layered increasing color and depth to the Messiah story.
The first half of the story concluded with the chorus' gentle declaration that 'His yoke is easy, His burden is light.' Here, the "light" lyric was sung not just with a fitting air of weightlessness, but with an ethereal luminosity.
Breathing life into the story
The glowing genius of Christie's story-coaxing became most apparent following intermission, when the tale turns dark with crucified death and then jubilant with resurrection.
In conversation before the show, the Maestro noted a "more personally humbled" tone he hoped to communicate, rather than the explosive outrage and exultation sometimes associated with these sections of the Messiah . He coached his crew to provide a kind of intimacy that might develop "talking around a fire pit with friends about the enormity of the pain" evoked by the story.
The musicians turned his direction into a living, breathing testament.
With singular compassion, Trudgen recounts Christ's sorrow-stricken journey of despised shame and spitting. Trudgeon somehow wrings a palpable grief from his vocal chords. Then, like empathetic friends around the campfire, the symphony offers tentative sorrowful echoes of human understanding.
During dress rehearsal Christie had urged the Phoenix Symphony Chorus to avoid the temptation of shouting the good news of the Hallelujah! and instead embrace the repeating lyrics with dynamic change and vitality. The stunning result in the Mesa performance translated to a resplendent auditory gift.
This Hallelujah! chorus wrapped an internalized exuberance around the Ikeda and encircled it with ribbons of restrained ecstasy. The audience stood and basked in a fleeting, effervescent joy for the entirety of the number. An undoubtedly tough act to follow.
Yet, the company's soprano did so, effortlessly it seemed. With indescribable affect, Shafer's full-bodied, moving triumph melted into buttery reassurance when she sang 'I know that my Redeemer liveth.' As her vocal texture melded with the text, the mid and lower strings of the symphony soulfully, resonantly agreed.
And finally, Christie's aim for a "nimble" 'Amen' provided concert goers with a remarkable departing levity. These performances will sell out. The storytellers are incomparably talented and sensitive. It is a rare combination. It is superb storytelling.