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Handel’s Messiah is one of those unfortunate holiday traditions you can’t escape, like ugly sweaters and fruitcake. Every year, choruses trot out the Christmas standard (actually, it was first performed in April) as their end-of-the-year moneymaker, which is to choral groups what The Nutcracker is to ballets. Churches, too, love Handel’s oratorio, a sure way to pack pews with prodigal parishioners.
Given Washington’s status as choral capital of the U.S., that’s a lot of Messiahs. This reviewer couldn’t attend them all—-in fact, he could only sit through two before giving up. But in the spirit of consumer reports, Arts Desk offers a point-by-point comparison between two of the bigger area performances, by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center (tonight through Sunday) and the National Philharmonic at Strathmore (Dec. 12 and 13).
Setting: Neither one is a house of worship, so between the Kennedy Center and Strathmore, which is the more fitting venue? The Kennedy Center made a halfhearted effort to be festive, stringing up wreaths and bunting, with a couple squat Christmas trees framing the performers. Strathmore did little more. Not that it had to. The Strathmore Music Center’s design, with its high ceiling and wood panels softly accentuated with amber lighting, is at once lavish and cozy, giving it the appropriate look of a megachurch somewhere in Texas or Colorado. Point: Philharmonic
Orchestra: This shouldn’t really be a contest. The National Philharmonic is a good (and, yes, paid) regional orchestra, but the NSO is unquestionably D.C.’s leading symphonic group. But in this matchup, NP isn’t quite up against the varsity. Both play with a reduced orchestra so as not to drown out the singers, but for Messiah, the NSO pulled its section leaders. Of the 19 string players, concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef was nowhere to be seen, nor was associate concertmaster Elisabeth Adkins. Yet even the NSO’s Division I jayvee easily held off NP’s Division II squad, sounding confident and chipper while the NP started to lose steam halfway through. Point: Symphony
Soloists: Each performance features four soloists: a soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and baritone. But it’s up to the arranger to assign arias to preferred singers. Both performances led with their tenor, but NSO soprano Klara Elk got the second aria and most of the best parts in the first half. NP’s soloists, particularly tenor Don Bernardini, did a fine job, but Elk, along with mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova, tenor Michele Angelini, and baritone Joan Martin-Royo, put on a less flowery but more impressive show. Point: Symphony
Chorus: Soloists were accompanied by amateur choruses in both cases. The National Philharmonic has its own Chorale, formerly the Masterworks Chorus, which is volunteer. The NSO brings in different choruses each year for its annual Messiah; last year was the Washington Chorus, this year it’s a student chorus from the University of Maryland. Both got through the piece quite capably. The difference here was not so much skill but size: Where the Terrapins had 33 singers, the Philharmonic Chorale had a whopping 160. Aggregate lung power alone gave the NP an edge in overall grandeur; keeping with the megachurch motif, you half expected to see Joel Osteen walk out and start selling books. Crowd response was more enthusiastic too, surely owing to the greater number of mommies in the audience. Point: Philharmonic
Length: Shouldn’t this be the same? Actually, no. The original Messiah had 53 sections, but the piece is long enough as it is and arrangements usually shave off a few. If, like the author, you know Messiah primarily from Coca-Cola commercials, you may be surprised to learn you have to sit through a whole hour and a half of singing about exalted valleys and heav’nly hosts, plus intermission, before getting to the “Hallelujah” part. And then there’s a whole final part about the resurrection that goes on and on despite having clearly reached its climax two-thirds of the way through. One of them may have been longer, but with both clocking in well over two hours, you lose sense of time. Point: Tie
The Clinching Factor: Parking. Kennedy Center: $20. Strathmore, free. Final Point and Winner: Philharmonic
Sadly, the winner already concluded its two-day run last weekend. Last-minute shoppers can still catch the NSO’s performance tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $20 – $85. (800) 444-1324.