Lest you think classical music an archaic art form that's on the way out, you should know that you probably would have had an easier time getting a ticket for the Eagles' two-night stand at the Xcel Center last month than for this weekend's Minnesota Orchestra concerts.
What was the attraction? It was the first time that the orchestra had performed George Frideric Handel's complete baroque-era oratorio, Messiah, since 2019. And it's clearly a holiday tradition that local audiences were eager to renew post COVID-19.
What did the fortunate 4,000-plus get for their ticket-snatching savvy? Well, Friday night's first performance left some solid impressions. One is the reminder that Handel was a master of melody whose Italian opera chops came through in evocative vocal solos and orchestral scene painting. Another is that there's a good reason that Reginald Mobley — making his Minnesota Orchestra debut — might now be the world's hottest countertenor. Currently a Grammy nominee for a solo album, he proved awe-inspiring on each aria he tackled, his delivery spellbinding in its gentleness, his phrasing captivatingly smooth.
And there are other elements well worth experiencing, such as the pure, powerful high notes of soprano Georgia Jarman and the opportunity to have the old-world experience of hearing Handel with a couple of ancient cousins of the modern guitar on hand, the long-necked theorbo and the miniature baroque guitar.
But for those longing for a Messiah that ably exploits the favorable acoustics of Orchestra Hall, Friday was not your night. Under the direction of English conductor Christopher Warren-Green, the finished product offered by the orchestra, Minnesota Chorale and vocal soloists lacked the crisp clarity one desires from a baroque masterwork. It was too often a muddy Messiah, lyrics often ungraspable, fugues becoming walls of sound, precision at a premium.
That said, there are moments I will treasure from Friday, most of them happening whenever Mobley stepped to the lip of the stage to deliver a transporting aria. His "But who may abide" was remarkably tender, the phrasing velvety, the diction invariably clear, soon to be outdone by his powerful take on "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion."
But the showstopper came after intermission. I've attended many a Messiah, and I've heard versions of the aria, "He was despised," that were overwrought and seemed overlong. By contrast, Mobley made of it a quintessential expression of world-weary sadness, something soft and beautiful.
Speaking of beauty, soprano Jarman's voice possessed plenty of it, her delivery mellifluous, her ascents into her upper register transfixing. But her diction was a consistent problem, with few lyrics intelligible without consulting the program.
But at least she could be heard, which is more than could be said for most of the arias offered by bass Jordan Bisch. He was too often submerged by the orchestra, most notably on "The trumpet shall sound," which sounded more like a trumpet solo with background vocals. Meanwhile, tenor Toby Spence did some fine things with his arias but didn't put any particular interpretive stamp on them.
If you weren't able to secure a ticket to either of these Messiah presentations, do know that the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will perform it four times next weekend, with one particularly novel element: Conductor Dmitry Sinkovsky is also the countertenor soloist.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at email@example.com.
Who: The Minnesota Orchestra with conductor Christopher Warren-Green, soprano Georgia Jarman, countertenor Reginald Mobley, tenor Toby Spence, bass Jordan Bisch and the Minnesota Chorale
What: George Frideric Handel's oratorio, "Messiah"
When: 7 p.m. Sat.
Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: $51-$136, available at 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org