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Music review: Handel's 'Messiah' at Walt Disney Concert Hall

December 16, 2009 |  2:30 pm

Handel_george_frideric_110 With the crazily innovative contemporary programming of late November and early December over and done with for now, Walt Disney Concert Hall settled into the holiday season with the antithesis – baroque chestnuts over an open fire. First Handel’s “Messiah” for two midweek concert performances (plus two weekend sing-alongs), and then Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” over this weekend; you can hardly get less adventurous than that.

Point made. But no matter how many times you play it, “Messiah” remains a masterwork, unbelievably inspired throughout its nearly three-hour (counting intermission) length. And to make things interesting for the overexposed listener, no two versions are exactly alike.

Fortunately, Bernard Labadie – who last brought “Messiah” here in 2004 – was not content to sit back and let routine work its will. 

Throughout his performance Tuesday night with his Les Violons du Roy ensemble and La Chapelle de Quebec choir, one could hear all kinds of fine-tuned crescendos and diminuendos that added life to the music without distorting its shape. Tempos were usually fast but never overdriven – the prestissimos in “But Who May Abide” fizzed and sparkled – and there were a few unpredictable speeds, such as the unusually slow “Amen” chorus.

Labadie continues to champion the amicable compromise between period-performance practices and the more rounded, lusher sound of a modern orchestra that he forged long ago. Les Violons du Roy used modern instruments played with sometimes swelling attacks and little or no vibrato, so the audience got a robust, pleasing, room-filling sound along with some period strokes for the authenticity crowd.

If there were choices between alternative versions of certain sections, they were usually weighted in favor of the star counter-tenor David Daniels, who sang the alto parts with his customary sweetness and dauntless agility. Soprano Rosemary Joshua sounded lovely, her recitatives charged with drama; baritone Joshua Hopkins applied the requisite sense of command in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” and “Why Do The Nations.” Tenor Alan Bennett, substituting for Jan Kobow, performed capably, if with a noticeably smaller-sized voice than the others. (He had to leave the stage shortly after completing his singing in the middle of part one due to a problem with his throat, but he returned after intermission and sang the rest of the way.)

The chorus sang crisply, managing to produce a full, satisfying sound that seemed larger than its ranks.

Labadie performed the score complete, every section fully accounted for – and though the performance stretched to nearly 11 p.m., it’s a tribute to his enthusiasm, sense of shape and excellent musicians that it mostly flew by. As “Messiahs” go, this was a good one, with something for many differing tastes.

-- Richard S. Ginell

Handel's "Messiah" Walt Disney Concert Hall. 111 South Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. today. $29-$83. 323-850-2000 

Photo: George Frideric Handel

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