Written by Anita Dworkin
A riveting performance of George Frederick Handel’s Messiah, A Sacred Oratorio, delighted the entire audience at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco on Saturday, December 10, 2022. The Davies Symphony concert hall was adorned with garlands of sparkling white lights, poinsettias, and Christmas trees. Ah, the spirit of Christmas and celebrating the holiday spirit was in the air. The audience entered with eager anticipation. Some were dressed in formal attire, and one striking man was in a full traditional Scottish kilt. As we took our seats, San Francisco’s finest orchestra of musicians filled the stage one by one. Finally, our musical captain, the renowned Japanese conductor Maasai Suzuki began and took the stage with powerful precision. Along with the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, and four outstanding soloists, Suzuki held the audience spellbound for 2 ½ hours.
George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), an admired contemporary of Bach and Mozart, was born in Halle, Germany. Against his strict father’s wishes that he attend law school, he immersed himself in music. His dedication and practising his harpsichord while hiding in an attic closet gave him his skillset. Recognizing his son’s extraordinary talent, his wealthy father finally assented. Handel traversed the great capitals of Europe. He arrived in Dublin in deep debt. Charles Jennings shared his new libretto based on Old and New Testament texts. Eschewing sleep and food, Handel completed the 260-page musical score in twenty-four days! Messiah’s first performance in Dublin in 1742 was not well received. Opening in London, Handel requested that women not wear hoops under their skirts to increase audience size and profits. Imagine that! Though gaining in popularity, who knew Messiah would become one of the most beloved and frequently performed oratorios in musical history.
In line with the current Baroque musical style of the era as well as financial constraints, Messiah was performed initially with a small chamber orchestra and choir of 30 voices. Better funded today, groups such as The Mormon Tabernacle Choir have sung live with hundreds of voices. Thousands have joined through the internet from all over the world to sing the Hallelujah chorus together. Check out their recordings on YouTube. Singing the Messiah has become a popular community ritual celebrating Christmas and Easter. Following its original Baroque conception, this San Francisco performance featured a reduced choir and orchestra, and under Maestro Suzuki’s stunning leadership, the musicians beautifully played with dramatic touches and flourishes. In “The Trumpets Shall Sound,” the brass heralded a new era and lifted the audience to spiritual joy.
The four soloists performed their Recitatives and Arias with ornate touches and emotion. The Swedish tenor, Leif Aruba-Solen, opened his heartrending performance with “Comfort Ye .”His sweet tones reached our souls and resonated through the hall. Dressed In a black suit, patterned shirt, and red pocket handkerchief, he, along with his fellow quartet members, introduced a sartorial creativity to the typically black formally dressed performers. Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, Counter Tenor, added to the Christmas spirit, sporting a bright red tuxedo jacket with black trim. Cohen’s unique vocal range, similar to that of a female Contralto, thrilled the listener as he hit the high notes with ease and passion. We felt the pain of “the Man of Sorrow.” It was such a riveting performance that could melt the coldest of hearts. Jonathan Adams, Baritone, appeared in a black suit with a high white collar, reminiscent of an 18th-century cleric. He inspired his congregation with punctuated deep, resonant tones. Lauren Snouffer, a superb Soprano, dazzled us and left us wanting more! She glided on stage in a stunning, sleek, sleeveless burgundy velvet gown with a mock turtleneck and ruched waistline. Her impressive rich voice transfixed us and lifted our spirits as she sang, “Rejoice”! The San Francisco Symphony Choir, trained by guest artist Joshua Hagerman, executed an entire ensemble of sound and technically difficult passages with clarity. They sang with gusto and musicality. As the audience rose for the Hallelujah Chorus, we all quieted our desire to join in singing this universally rousing choral masterpiece. The soloists joined the choir, appearing to enjoy the experience immensely. As the final notes of the Amen Chorus floated through the auditorium, we jumped to our feet for a rousing standing ovation. We will never tire of this inspiring work that continues to bring us joy year after year. For six years, I anticipated singing and performing with my 200-voice college and community choir’s annual sold-out six performances of Messiah in Ann Arbor. As our director shared, his fervent wish would be to meet Handel in Heaven! It was a glorious night of remembrance and celebration, and SF Symphony impressed upon us once again their majesty and talents. Such a great way to welcome a joyous season and the New Year ahead.
For more info on the SF Symphony, go to: www.sfsymphony.org