Perhaps not every member of the New York Philharmonic is thrilled at the annual prospect of Handel’s “Messiah,” and you can partly understand why. As often as not these days, a sharply reduced contingent of 30 or so players will be commandeered by an early-music specialist who will try to reshape their style and sound, at least for the moment — requesting, for example, that the strings rein in their rich vibrato.
Yet this year — this week, in fact — the players had cause to shout “hallelujah,” as the orchestra announced that it had quickly raised a $50 million “launch fund” to insure fiscal stability at the start of Deborah Borda’s tenure as president and chief executive, and Jaap van Zweden’s as music director designate. But the ones doing the actual shouting at Tuesday evening’s “Messiah” performance, the singers of the Westminster Symphonic Choir, have faced news more unsettling: that their parent, Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., may be sold if not shut down by Rider University, with faculty members reported to have received notices of layoffs.
However such circumstances may have affected the 56 young choristers’ spirits, they did not dampen their performance, which was everywhere vivid. In “For unto us a Child is born,” the appellation “wonderful” positively bloomed and grew. “Hallelujah” was indeed a shout, yet exquisitely controlled. Dynamics were modulated as if on a hair trigger, whether thanks to the preparation of the choir’s director, Joe Miller, or to the ministrations of this year’s early-music import, the British maestro Andrew Manze.
As expected, Mr. Manze restrained string vibrato and allowed ample melodic ornamentation, even when it proved mildly disruptive. (Would Handel, a consummate tone painter, have sanctioned the soprano’s showy, altitudinous extension on the word “rest” in “ye shall find rest unto your souls”?) Mr. Manze threw in a scare at the start, with an opening tempo in the Sinfonia that was almost painfully slow, but for the rest, his pacing was mostly brisk, in the current historically-informed mode.
The vocal soloists, all with operatic leanings, were nevertheless varied. Joélle Harvey, that soprano, sang with pure, refined tone and showed good agility. Jennifer Johnson Cano, the mezzo-soprano, had a bigger, less focused sound, but she sang with great warmth, especially in “Come unto Him,” where she set up the handoff to Ms. Harvey beautifully.
Ben Bliss was an excellent tenor, strong and attractive of tone and manner. But the performance of Andrew Foster-Williams, a bass-baritone, raised questions: chiefly, how he would survive the weeklong run. He sounded underpowered and strained in the early going (“shake all nations,” “furiously rage”) and utterly spent in “The trumpet shall sound.” (The Philharmonic said on Wednesday that the baritone Tyler Duncan would take on the rest of the performances.)