For a large segment of the population, attending a performance of Handel’s beloved oratorio “Messiah” — or listening to it on disc or on radio — is one of the things to be done without fail during the Christmas season, no less integral than gift-buying and office parties.
Perhaps this is odd, given that Handel wasn’t a composer of religious music. He was a dramatist, a man of the theater who composed music dramas, whether called operas or oratorios. Even so, starting in the 19th century, “Messiah” evolved into the symbol of traditional religious observance and communal feeling that it is today.
For decades each December, the Minnesota Orchestra presented the “Messiah” at both Orchestra Hall and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. That series is now played only at Orchestra Hall, and two years ago, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra stepped into the breach, offering its “Messiah” at the basilica and, in addition this weekend, a final performance at its new home, the Ordway Concert Hall.
Over the years the Minnesota Orchestra’s performances at the basilica were varied and interesting. The space, though — over-reverberant to the point of echo — was always a bad fit. The basilica, with its vast domed ceiling, is a feast for the eyes but a starvation diet for the ears. At least it is in the kind of fast-moving Baroque music that Handel wrote.
Certain details of the performance that Matthew Halls led at the basilica Thursday night were like rumors passed in an airplane hangar from person to person. (“Did I hear what I think I heard?”) Still, this was a lively and at times touching performance that stressed the inward and reflective nature of this great work over its brio.
Halls, a British conductor who now runs the Oregon Bach festival, adhered for the most part to early-music orthodoxy: transparent textures, sprightly rhythms and relatively small performing forces — an orchestra of about 20 players and a chorus (the excellent Minnesota Chorale) of about 40.
Using restrained vibrato, the string players produced a tangy sound that suits this music and gives it pep. Two orchestral sections, “Symphony” and “Pifa,” were delicately phrased. In a nice touch Halls used the short version of “Pifa” and, without pause, let it run right into “There were shepherds abiding in the field,” sung with agile grace by soprano Yulia van Doren.
Halls’ tempos for some of the bigger choral numbers such as “And he shall purify” were too fast. The result, in some cases, was a blur, not a failing we expect from a strong chorus that has sung this work many times.
The Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor, with his powerfully expressive voice, was a brooding presence onstage, delivering an agile and distraught “But who may abide.” Tenor Charles Blandy’s “Comfort ye” and “Ev’ry valley” were equally thoughtful in conception and skillful ornamentation. Bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba couldn’t convey the dramatic weight that his male colleagues did, but he brought a resonant sound to “The trumpet shall sound.”
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis music critic.