Sizzling: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, December 10, 2009

You might be excused for being a little skeptical about the potential artistic and entertainment value of “Too Hot to Handel,” which brings the indelible melodies of “The Messiah” into the realm of black vernacular music, when you see advertisements like this:

Handel wearing sunglasses

A grabby image, but also emblematic of many of these ventures: A patina of soul sitting uneasily atop an essentially unchanged base of classical, the latter sounding all the more dusty for the contrast. But “Too Hot to Handel,” conceived by the mind of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop and born of arrangers Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson, gets into the bones of “The Messiah.” In line with current scholarship, Christianson and Anderson found plenty of room for solo showoffs, imaginative harmonic recasting, and on-the-spot inspiration. The resulting work sits in the sweet spot of sacred inspiration where Baroque and gospel intersect, with tinges of jazz, blues, and funk on the side.

On Thursday night, Alsop brought the Baltimore Symphony together with the Baltimore City College High School Choir and with pop musicians skilled enough to find that sweet spot as well, and they tore the roof off the Music Center at Strathmore. To every valley should this performance be exalted.

How did Christianson and Anderson marry these styles so convincingly? A hint came in the opening Sinfonia, when the original instrumentation dropped out after the opening flourishes — drummer Clint de Ganon began spanking out a hard backbeat over which the BSO’s brass section unfurled the fugue in swaggering fashion. Though the counterpoint remained pointed, the music focused more on rhythm and how melody played within and against it. The other clear sign came next, in “Comfort ye my people,” where tenor/Broadway veteran Lawrence Clayton sang in true gospel fashion, with freedom to embellish and extend at his whim: The arias in “Too Hot to Handel” belong to the soloists, as they would have in Handel’s day, where vocal superstars drew crowds and operas and oratorios served to some extent as canvases upon which they could make their improvisational mark.

If you make the recitatives and arias into star vehicles, it helps to have stars who can drive them hard, and Clayton certainly did; he gave a rousing swing to “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted,” and, in “Surely he hath borne our griefs,” turned “Surely” from a throwaway assurance into a mantra with his increasingly fevered repetitions. Yet he was joined by equally fine ladies of song. Mezzo-soprano Vaneese Thomas (daughter of Rufus Thomas!) gave me goosebumps with her throaty low note, daringly extended and whipped into a passion, at the end of  the phrase “Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts.” Cynthia Renée Saffron took her goosebump-giving turn with her ecstasy over the words “Wonderful, Counselor” in “For unto us a child is born,” and her turn on a bebop-style arrangement of “Rejoice greatly” had a rhythmic sharpness and command that made the already-swinging melody feel almost dangerously exuberant.

The only weaker numbers smoothed out edges in the original; making “O Thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” into a midtempo ballad removed the preinstalled Handelian swing for no obvious reason, and “But who may abide,” in a similar reconfiguration, lacked a scouring edge, though Thomas made it fairly convincing anyway. Mezzo Kimberly Michaels, who made her BSO debut Thursday after impressing at an open audition, had a little trouble opening up the melodic line at the beginning of “He shall feed his flock,” but that only made it all the more satisfying when she really got cooking at the end.

In the regular “Messiah,” Handel’s counterpoint makes his choruses lift off; in Christianson and Anderson’s hands, an equivalent lift comes from gospel rhythms, which sound perfectly natural when allied to these Biblical texts, and especially when sung by the Baltimore City College High School Choir. They made a warm, clear sound that reached to the rafters in “Glory to God,” but they also could sound incisive and tough; they made you hear the meaning behind the words “an offering of righteousness” in “And he shall purify,” and “He trusted in God that He would deliver Him” had all the sternness it needed.

Emboldened by the addition of a jazz quartet, Christianson and Anderson added some material to show it off; pianist Clifford Carter got to noodle out an evocative solo before “There were shepherds abiding in the field,” establishing the miraculous mood, and Christianson himself laid down some rich, moody solos on his Hammond B3 organ when not playing a traditional continuo role with alert bassist Mike Pope. Alsop ensured that everyone else sounded equally spontaneous while keeping things together and moving; the vocalists showed awareness of how many bars they had to work with, but Alsop encouraged them to keep going when they found something good. (The only complaint about how it all fit together is that the strings were so low in the mix as to be intermittently inaudible, a problem worsened by Strathmore’s super-live acoustics.)

And because Christianson and Anderson simply skipped Part 3, as everyone who has ever sat through the complete Messiah in the concert hall has thought about doing at some point, we ended with the almost universally agreed-upon climax, your favorite and mine, ladies and gentlemen: the Hallelujah Chorus. With the City College high schoolers singing out and swinging hard, the soloists moved to even more impressive feats of melisma than before, and the jazz combo cooking alongside the Baltimoreans under Alsop’s baton, it no longer mattered where this music came from: It was, as Trendy Sunglasses Handel would doubtless tell us, where it’s at.

YES, THERE IS MARGINALIA

Cynthia Renée Saffron is good-looking.

Best name from the Balmer City College high schoolers: Imhotep McClain.

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3 Comments on “Sizzling: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, December 10, 2009”

  1. Lorene M. Birden Says:

    You have certainly given a wonderful account of this reworking, the most complete that I have ever read. It still doesn’t make me want to hear it — I am not a Handel fan AND not a gospel fan. But it gives me an idea of its energy, and of why Marin Alsop has been able to offer it night after night for so many years. Maybe I’ll go for the twentieth anniversary performance …

    All power to her and the performers!

  2. Art Chester Says:

    Thanks for a great thoughtful review. Every year, we attend the Detroit or Chicago performances of Too Hot To Handel given by Suzanne Acton’s Rackham Symphony Choir, and they give a great performance. However, your writeup makes me also want to drive down to Baltimore and see it presented by Marin Alsop, the mother of it all, in its latest version. THTH is a brilliant work, and your review captures its magical quality!


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