The Cleveland Orchestra opened its 2015 holiday season programming  this weekend with George Frideric Handel's Messiah, with several minor cuts in Parts 2 and 3. The most recent Cleveland Orchestra performance of Messiah was in 2009, conducted then as now by the orchestra's Director of Choruses Robert Porco.

Yulia Van Doren © Andrew Schaff
Yulia Van Doren
© Andrew Schaff

The performance could be described as 1960s modern, with a chamber orchestra and relatively small chorus and a mixed quartet of soloists. There was almost no reference to current trends in historically-informed performance practice. The opening Sinfonia was nicely double-dotted; but later, at the opening chorus of Part 2, "Behold the lamb of God," the dotted rhythms were rendered more as triplets. The tempos were often brisk, but lacked vitality. Since the orchestra has in the past worked with such early music experts as Ton Koopman and Nicholas McGegan to excellent results, the artistic decisions here apparently were intentional. With the exception of soprano Yulia Van Doren, none of the soloists significantly ornamented their arias, even in da capo repeats. It all led to a reading that was competent but not riveting enough for its two and three-quarters hours length.

More troubling were several significant ensemble problems, including three movements in which either the orchestra, the continuo, or the chorus failed to enter at the right time. Each time, the affected parts of the ensemble adjusted and got back together. The possibility of error in public performance is, of course, omnipresent, but multiple occurrences of this sort in one performance of very standard repertoire made for a sense that this was not up to The Cleveland Orchestra's usual impeccable standards. 

It is not that the performance was without merit; indeed, there were many fine moments. There was a strong quartet of soloist, including the aforementioned soprano Yulia Van Doren, whose high, vibrant and flexibly light voice coped well with the fioratura of the solos. She was highly imaginative but disciplined in her ornamentation. At times she used her vibrato as an expressive mechanism to color the text. Her phrasing in "I know that my redeemer liveth" was especially lovely.

Tenor John Tessier was clear, lyrical and and pitch-perfect in his music. He managed the tricky leaps in his aria "Thou shalt break them" with aplomb. Bass-baritone Timothy Jones took over for the previously-announced Nathan Berg, who withdrew because of illness. Jones was stentorian in his commanding arias, especially in the long "The trumpet shall sound" in Part 3, which also featured the the orchestra's brilliant principal trumpet, Michael Sachs, in the obbligato. The tempo that Jones used in his first, unaccompanied measure of that aria was noticeably faster than the one that Robert Porco started for the aria's introduction; Porco followed Jones's lead.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson-Cano is a fine artist, with a rich, lustrous sound. I would love to hear her sing Mahler with this orchestra; here, however, she often seemed mismatched with the music, struggling to perform legato lines in the coloratura passages of "But who may abide" and elsewhere. She was at her best in the long melodies of "He shall feed his flock" and "He was despised".

The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus was on good form, with blended and refined sound (although perhaps a bit underpowered at times and with some overemphasized hard consonants). The group sang cleanly in the florid choral passages. At faster tempos there was sometimes a tendency to rush the conductor's pulse, but things never got out of control. There were a few momentary lapses of intonation, but soon corrected. The final "Worthy is the lamb" and "Amen" choruses contained the first real fortissimo passages of the evening, and they were thrilling.

This was a performance of unrealized potential. There are now opportunities to hear Messiah with lithe and historically-aware orchestras, choruses and soloists. With the unending press of performing obligations, what distinctive qualities does The Cleveland Orchestra bring to a performance of Messiah? That question remains unanswered for now.