Oh, Handel, you populated your "Messiah" with so many pleasures: the fugues that surge like ocean surf; the shivery gravity of the strings, early on; the rhythms that connote struggle, groping through darkness, then stepping into the light. And most of all, those sweeping melodies, hit tunes from start to finish.
For the 14th year, the American Bach Soloists are performing "Messiah" at Grace Cathedral atop Nob Hill in San Francisco, an annual Christmas-time treat. Thursday's opening performance by the expert period-instrument orchestra and chorus, led by Jeffrey Thomas, was crisply and powerfully offered, putting across Handel's deft word-painting and the work's liturgical sweep, announcing the story of Christ's coming, his resurrection, ascension and glorification.
Thomas brought along four strong soloists to engage the oratorio's many Baroque-jukebox moments. For this listener, a favorite occurred when soprano Mary Wilson eased into the spotlight during Part One's fourth and fifth scenes, which are all about shepherds and angels and the attainment of peace. She is a fresh-voiced singer and a direct communicator -- without artifice as she loops and embellishes, executing Handel's tricky flights with seemingly little effort.
She's singing songs for her listeners; that's the effect.
And that moment: It happened as she coasted upward through the words "and ye shall find Rest unto your souls." Wilson alighted upon that key word, "Rest," as if she were laying her head on a soft pillow, high up on a heavenly perch. It happened quietly, but her pure sound carried as much clout as any moment in the two-and-a-half hour oratorio, which Handel composed in 1741, with a scriptural text assembled by Charles Jennens. Some of its early performances gave comfort -- perhaps a sense of "rest" -- to deserted and orphaned children in London's Foundling Hospital.
OK, time to carp.
Thomas likes to boast that his group offers historically informed performances: valveless trumpets, gut strings and the sort of expressive singing that Handel presumably enjoyed. The program notes handed out this weekend include descriptions of the vintage instruments played by each member of the orchestra. Concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock plays a violin crafted by the illustrious Andrea Guarneri in Cremona, Italy, in 1660. Joseph Edelberg, another of the violinists, plays an instrument dating to 1673 and the shop of Jacob Stainer, an Austrian luthier. And so on.
Yet each year, American Bach Soloists amplifies its "Messiah" performances at Grace Cathedral. Granted, the cathedral has strange, unpredictable and booming, reverberant acoustics. The amplification -- or sound "reinforcement," as ABS calls it -- is meant to even out the big room's acoustic flavors and specifically to boost the soloists' voices, so the libretto can clearly be heard. But how "authentic" is an amplified performance of "Messiah"? Thursday, much of the warmth that should arise from the ranks of a period orchestra was covered over by a cool and homogeneous patina.
Well, it was a trade-off.
Who couldn't enjoy tenor Wesley Rogers' aria "Ev'ry Valley shall be exalted," which he sang so melodiously, with dexterity, strength and depth of tone? Countertenor Ian Howell must have sipped hot tea at intermission, because, after an uncomfortable first half, he emerged in Part Two with the famous "He was despised and rejected of Men." Like a balladeer, he sang this song of Jesus's suffering with blooming sorrow.
After the audience rose to acknowledge the "Hallelujah" chorus, there was no beating Part Three's "The Trumpet shall sound," which baritone Jesse Blumberg delivered like a leaping proclamation of Judgment Day. He did this in tandem with impeccable trumpet soloist Caleb Hudson -- whose late-model valveless instrument (from 2009) is modeled after one made in Nuremberg by Leonhard Ehe III, in 1746.
The final "Amen" was a riot of fugue: so many colors poured through the chorus, which was blended with zing throughout the performance. One could see looks of love for this music on the faces of many of the singers, and why not?
Performed by American Bach Soloists; Jeffrey Thomas, conductor
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21-22
Where: Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St., San Francisco
Tickets: $20-$94; www.americanbach.org.