Orchestra, chorus take on challenge with new Messiah

  • Jul 12, 2009
[caption id="attachment_2898" align="alignright" width="216" caption="Photo: Jon Christopher Meyers"][/caption]From The Register-Guard “Since by man came death” is a harmonically simple yet exquisitely shaped, poignantly sublime chorus occurring in Part III of Sven-David Sandström’s “Messiah,” the oratorio that conductor Helmuth Rilling and the Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra and Chorus premiered Thursday evening at the Hult Center. This new composition, commissioned jointly by the Bach Festival and the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart, Germany, was billed as one of the signal events of this year’s festival. Unfortunately, wonderful moments such as that chorus — and there were many throughout the 110-minute work — do not necessarily make for a coherent piece of music. Sandström’s nearly impossible task was to compose a setting using the exact same text that George Frideric Handel used for his 1741 work and employing the same combination of musicians. Handel set a good deal of the text in recitative, allowing him to include well-developed movements in his work. Sandström composed no recitative-like sections, which forced him to keep the length of the choruses and arias down to a minimum. “And the Glory of the Lord” lasted barely a minute. It appears that the Swedish composer went out of his way to make his “Messiah” un-Handelian. In so doing, he created a desultory series of excursions into hyper-romantic postmodernism. To be sure, there is a great deal of drama in each movement. In several choruses, dynamics range from pianissimo to fortissimo, with brasses blaring and drums pounding and tenors soaring to high B-flats and C’s. But with so much intensity throughout, the oratorio loses any sense of overall dramatic development. Sandström relies heavily on a small stock of harmonies: mostly major and minor triads to create stability, tone clusters to create tension, and dominant seventh chords to create motion. For variety, he sometimes fragments the text into simple figures, which the singers repeat in interlocking, syncopated patterns. This creates an interesting effect, but obfuscates the text. The text is obscured in other ways. Sandström’s orchestral writing is frequently aggressive, and the orchestra’s sound often enveloped the words, forcing many listeners to keep an eye on the text booklet. Moreover, the musical text-setting sometimes contradicts the natural rhythm and inflection of the words. One wondered if Sandström intended to convey the meaning of the words, or whether he simply used the text as a template for musical ideas. After hearing the quiet, moving conclusion to the work, it was clear to me that Sandström does indeed have a vision of the text. In contrast to Handel’s joyous, sunny view of the text, Sandström’s is foreboding, and in the end, mysterious. In bar 8 of the opening movement, the composer alludes to the “Hallelujah” section by having the chorus reiterate the word “hallelujah” in even semiquavers at triple piano; one minute later the chorus sings, “prepare ye the way of the Lord,” at triple forte. Moreover, the final “Amen,” occurring after nearly two hours of dynamic extremes, is marked triple piano, as choristers repeat a rising melodic figure in imitation. Orchestral accompaniment is sparse, and as violins ascend heavenward, the music fades away evanescently. The four vocal soloists were excellent. Soprano Robin Johannsen delivered “Behold, a Virgin Shall Conceive” and other arias with radiance and power. “Behold, I tell you a mystery” was one of several arias in which alto Roxana Constantinescu demonstrated strength and expressivity. Tenor Timothy Fallon sang with great expression, producing a splendid tone in “Then shall be brought to pass,” but in many of his arias, the orchestral fabric overshadowed him. Bass-baritone Bernd Valentin’s voice proved strong and vibrant in, for example, “The people that walked in darkness.” Messiah is a profoundly difficult work, but the OBF Chorus delivered the 21 choral sections with accuracy and forcefulness. Intonation, syllabic precision and balance were excellent. The modest-sized orchestra produced a full, commanding sound, and appeared undaunted by the challenging score.