Handel’s MESSIAH by American Bach Soloists in Grace Cathedral

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday December 13, 2018 - 11:02:00 AM

In this their 30th season, American Bach Soloists performed Handel’s Messiah for the 21st consecutive year in San Francisco’s inspiring Grace Cathedral. Along with the American Bach Choir, American Bach Soloists were led by their founder, Jeffrey Thomas, in three performances of the Messiah, December 12-14. At the December 12 concert, I was struck anew by how much the text of Handel’s Messiah by Charles Jennens suggests Christianity’s debt to earlier religious beliefs and practices. After an overture in the French manner that opens slowly then becomes faster in the second section, the tenor follows with a recitative and aria. Here the tenor was Aaron Sheehan, and he launched into the florid aria, “Ev’ry Valley shall be exalted.” The words of this aria had always mystified me. Yet, suddenly, it dawned on me that this was a celebration of the coming of spring, when, indeed, ev’ry valley blooms miraculously, and the earth is renewed. Moreover, the fact that we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection at Easter, i.e., at the coming of spring, is no coincidence, for Christianity simply incorporated far earlier religions’ celebration of earth’s renewal in spring. What better way could there be to begin a celebration of the Messiah than by invoking the age-old agrarian cycle of earth’s renewal? 

Countertenor Eric Jurenas provided a sweet-voiced set of arias in the opening section. Especially beautiful was his “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,” set to lilting violins over a bass line, music that was then passed on to the chorus. Though Jurenas was at his best in high notes sung fortissimo, he did not fare so well when singing softly in his lower register, and this was especially noticeable when the orchestra tended to cover his voice. Baritone Jesse Blumberg offered a suitably gloomy rendition of “The people that walked in darkness.” The chorus then delivered a perennial highlight – “For unto us a child is born,” sung exultantly. Another perennial highlight ensued with the coloratura aria “Rejoice greatly,” gorgeously sung here by soprano Mary Wilson. The tender lyricism” of “He shall feed his flock” was performed here as a soothing duet between countertenor Eric Jurenas and soprano Mary Wilson, followed by a brief chorus to close Part One of Handel’s Messiah. 

The second part begins with a chorus, “Behold the Lamb of God.” There follows the utterly forlorn “He was despised,” beautifully sung here by countertenor Eric Jurenas. Accompanied by spare introductory notes in the violins, Jurenas’s singing in the A section of this ABA aria was inconsolably sorrowful and utterly expressive. However, the B section of this aria offered heavy orchestral accompaniment that tended to cover the countertenor’s voice. The chorus then begins “Surely he hath borne our Griefs” with an attack on the word “Surely.” A bit later comes another highlight, the soprano aria “How beautiful are the feet,” sung gorgeously here by Mary Wilson. A baritone aria and a tenor aria lead inexorably to the great “Hallelujah Chorus,” a masterpiece of contrapuntal writing that inevitably brings the audience to its feet.  

Part 3 opens with a soprano aria, “I know that my redeemer liveth.” As I listened to Mary Wilson sing the words to this aria, I had another glimpse of the debt this text owes to older agrarian ritual cycles. At the words “For now is Christ risen from the Dead, the First-Fruits of them that sleep,” I was suddenly struck by the resemblance here to the ancient Greeks’ celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries, evoking earth’s renewal in spring when Persephone emerges from the Underworld to rejoin her grieving mother, Demeter, who then joyously causes the dormant seeds of winter to bloom forth upon the earth, bringing bounteous plenty to humankind and a promise of eternal renewal, i.e., eternal life.  

After a brief chorus comes yet another highlight of Handel’s Messiah, the aria “The trumpet shall sound,” sung here by baritone Jesse Blumberg accompanied gorgeously by Kathryn James on trumpet. A brief duet ensues for countertenor and tenor, “O Death, where is thy Sting?” One last aria follows, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”, beautifully rendered here by Mary Wilson. Then comes the monumental closing chorus, “Worthy is the Lamb,” with its fugal section leading to an exultant “Amen,” punctuated by excellent work from timpanist Henry Reed. 

Throughout this Messiah, conductor Jeffry Thomas led the musicians in a wonderful performance, one sensitive to the dynamics of loud-and-soft and the varieties of fast-and-slow. The American Bach Chorus sang beautifully throughout. Perhaps especially worthy of praise was the soprano section of the Chorus, whose soaring voices rose majestically to the uppermost vaulted arches of Grace Cathedral. 

Finally, if you can’t make it to Grace Cathedral for the ABS performances of Handel’s Messiah, you have one further opportunity to hear it on Saturday, December 15, in Weill Hall at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park.