It was a festive scene Wednesday morning at the crowded Orchestra Hall as Osmo Vänskä lifted his baton over Handel's Messiah, the first time he'd done so in Minnesota. A woman in front of me pulled her fur around her shoulders and peered through opera glasses; a couple to my left readied the bound Messiah scores they'd brought to follow along with; and the woman to my right revealed a Santa Claus sock as she crossed her leg. When tenor Thomas Cooley finished his first solo, the woman tugged at my sleeve and whispered proudly, "That's my son!"
Though a late-arising work meeting forced me to miss the second half of the matinee performance, it was by then clear that I was leaving the towering composition in good hands. Rather than delivering the crisp, plain tempos favored by buffs of "authenticity" in classical music, Vänskä flavors his Handel with rich drama and dynamic contrasts in a manner that makes clear why the stormy Beethoven was such a fan.
This approach particularly paid off in the famous chorus "Unto Us a Child is Born," which builds from hushed tones to a thrilling full-throated declaration by the exceptional, precise Minnesota Chorale. Another show-stopper was countertenor Brian Asawa's "He Was Despised." Asawa wrings drama from every fraction of every syllable of this lament, and he has the deeply furrowed brow to match the impeccable grief of his singing. Even in 1742, sad songs said so much.
With its brilliant melodies, seasonal theme, and English text (fortunately for the English-speaking world, the German-born Handel was a great Anglophile), Messiah is among the most accessible masterworks in the classical repertoire. Though Vänskä's take may or may not unseat Gardiner or Hickox as your personal favorite, this weekend's opportunities to hear this fine Messiah by our hometown band are most welcome. Do as I say, not as I do: go, and stay for the whole thing.
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