“I can live without an afterlife, I can live without a god,” writes author Sasha Sagan in “For Small Creatures Such as We,” her recently published book. “But not without celebrations, not without community, not without ritual.”
Regardless of our religious beliefs, or lack thereof, something within us seems hard-wired to seek out those three things as each year dies, and for Bostonians, Handel’s “Messiah”waits with open arms in many incarnations. Whether you take your Messiah straight up, as a sing-along, or in Spanish, the jubilation of “Hallelujah” will follow any “He was despised,” and just so, spring will come again.
For those who chose to celebrate with Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque – providers of annual period-instrument “Messiah” performances in town since 1981 – soprano Amanda Forsythe and mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero came bearing gifts of gold on Friday evening at Jordan Hall. Both frequent Boston Baroque guests, they consistently pull more than their weight, and this was no exception.
Forsythe, an expressive singer par excellence, may as well have descended from heaven herself during the angel’s annunciation. She seldom visibly consulted the score she held, instead engaging the audience with spark in her eyes. Her first air, “Rejoice greatly,” was taken at a full gallop but her melismas remained pristine. The weightless ascent to a high B flat on the word “shout” nearly lifted me out of my seat, and it wasn’t anywhere near “Hallelujah” time.
Quintero took a few moments to heat up her refiner’s fire, but once it arrived, it never died. As she declaimed “O thou that tellest,” the luminosity of both her mulled-wine voice and her rosy smile far outshone her spangled gown. Bringing delicate eddies of volume and intensity to “He was despised,” she ensured the lengthy air never plodded.
Tenor Thomas Cooley and baritone Andrew Garland laid down patchy performances. Cooley sang with plenty of bright-eyed zeal, but often missed the target pitch-wise, especially in recitative or agitated arias. If not for the ringing sound of Gabriel’s horn as played by the excellent Jesse Levine, Garland’s wooden “The Trumpet Shall Sound” wouldn’t have woken the quick, much less the dead.
The last time I saw Boston Baroque’s “Messiah,” in 2017, I remarked that the chorus could have unleashed more energy during some sections of the music. This year, that extended to almost all of them. Nearly every chorus charted the same trajectory from a starched mezzo-piano to a still-muted forte – the sequence culminating in “All we like sheep” was one promising exception, but that didn’t continue.
The vitality of the orchestra, which Pearlman conducted from the harpsichord, was also dimmed in comparison to previous performances of “Messiah” and other things. Except in the “Pifa,” stately in its homespun cloth, I never heard the invitation to the dance. Whatever dramatic momentum a solo may have offered, the next sections rarely followed through or built on it, but shifted back into choral cruise control – even in “Hallelujah.”
Still, after all memory of the actual sound of “Hallelujah” has faded, I’ll remember the couple behind me singing the alto and tenor lines under their breath; I’ll remember the star soprano joining the chorus to proclaim “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords”; I’ll remember the violinist surveying the rising crowd while playing the first notes, making no effort to hide her grin. This ritual endures, I believe for the better.
At Jordan Hall, Dec. 6. Repeats Dec. 7. 617) 987-8600, http://baroque.boston
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.