If you are looking for a new holiday tradition, consider the Houston Symphony's "Handel's Messiah in Candlelight," which is the perfect blend of sacred Christmas music, easily accessible for the casual symphony listener, with a stunning setting in the dim of candlelight. This year's annual performance took place this past weekend at Jones Hall.
Handel's Messiah premiered in Dublin, Ireland, as a part of a charity concert to benefit a Dublin hospital in April of 1742. When Handel brought it to London, it was received poorly due to its combination of religious components and the use of elaborate singing, which was considered sacrilegious. By 1750, however, the composition gained notoriety and has remained an homage to the birth of Christ and the Christmas spirit since.
This year's performance was led by guest conductor Christian Knapp. Knapp has a weighty résumé, with positive debuts at such symphonies as the Phoenix Symphony, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, among others. He is known for his "energetic stage presence" and he lived up to his reputation. He led the orchestra with a lively and animated manner, keeping the performers on their toes. He transitioned each movement seamlessly, with an upbeat enthusiasm that added to the richness of the performance.
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This year's soloists were also making their Houston Symphony debuts, each carrying long lists of top-notch performances under their collective belts. Soprano Yulia Van Doren's sweet tone stole the show. Her voice filled Jones Hall with an emotional swell, as good as anything we have ever heard. Her contrast to the contralto, Malin Fritz, was noticeably present. Fritz's deep voice was a bit too "showy" for us, as if she was playing a character of an opera singer. Tenor Sean Panikkar's thick voice enveloped you with a soothing warmth.
Whether you think you know Handel's Messiah or not, you probably do. Even the most classical music and/or Christmas neophyte is familiar with the famed "Hallelujah chorus." As exciting a piece of music as it is, nothing compares to seeing it performed live by a chorus of 50-plus members. It was thrilling, to say the least, especially performed by candlelight.
If this weekend's performance is any indication of what next year will bring, we suggest marking your calendars off for 2012's concert.