Conductor Joanna Medawar Nachef Captures the Magic of G.F. Handel’s Messiah

Nelida Nassar  12.10.2013

The Beirut Chants Festival Orchestra and the Antonine University Choir, directed by Father Toufic Maatouk, launched the sixth annual Beirut Chants with their first-ever performance of the Christmas portion of G.F. Handel’s oratorio Messiah. The guest soloists were soprano BaekJeong Bin, countertenor (replacing the mezzo-soprano role) Rafaelle Pe, tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani, boy soprano Bady Hatem, and bass Roger Abi-Nader. The conductor was Joanna Medawar Nachef, the first Middle Eastern woman choral conductor of Lebanese origin. Trained in the USA, she has served as director of El Camino College, California choral activities and has been both a US State Department speaker and a “Citizen Diplomat” with the “Global Education through Technology” project.

Messiah is one of the few pieces in music history to enjoy popular success during its composer’s lifetime and never fall out of favor in the years after his death. Historically informed performances today often use smaller orchestras than would have been heard in Handel’s day. Some might say this is “inauthentic,” but today choirs don’t require the support of a dozen oboes or a bass line heavily reinforced by extra strings. The performance at Saint Maron Church was close to the “real deal” – the way Messiah might have been heard in 1742 (except for the poor ventilation and the small size of the church).

Part I of the oratorio, also known as the “Christmas portion,” has long been a ubiquitous if not obligatory fixture on the Anglo-American choral music calendar during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Both chorus and vocal soloists performed well, ably supported by the smallish orchestral forces required for the concert, scaled down to the bare essentials, including the minimum of strings. The orchestra provided good ensemble work, characterized by lovely tone painting, beautiful sonorities, and expressive phrasing that managed to remain lean and crisp. The intimacy of the setting and subtlety of its approach lent the performance a little extra polish. The musicians took a satisfying middle path, conveying Baroque stylistic sentiments even while using modern instruments.

The soloists, whose singing was operatic, also displayed an appropriate degree of drama, intimacy, and intensity. There were some disappointments – but also some notable triumphs. Entering with Comfort ye my people, tenor Zorzi Giustiniani was immediately engaged and expressive. Abi-Nader gave a solid performance despite a lack of clear diction, and was not overbearing in his solos. Bin was both expressive and articulate in Rejoice greatly, but the discovery of the evening was Pe, warmly lyrical and remarkably agile, particularly in Behold, a virgin shall conceive. Bass Abi-Nader could have come up front to stand with the other vocalists, but by remaining at the center of the orchestra he probably simplified the logistics, avoiding the complications of moving people around in a crowded space.

The entire chorus also rose to the occasion, singing with great energy and confidence. They were particularly inspiring in For unto us a child is born and his name shall be called: Wonderful! Counsellor!, delivered in a nuanced and lovingly phrased manner, at once subtle, clear and intimate.

Medawar Nachef consistently opted for unusually quicker (and more exciting) tempos, with a few exceptions (a slower than usual Come unto Him and final Chorus). She never let the details of any section of the story overwhelm the ongoing narrative. She also made strategic cuts to the score with interesting results (some good and some not so good) eliminating the last chorus from Part I His Yoke is Easy. They heightened the dramatic arc, especially leading up to and away from the Hallelujah Chorus.

Medawar Nachef is clearly an expressive conductor – here caught up in the spirit of the celebrated music she was conducting, singing along with the choir. She was a joy to watch, both for her bouncy and sly demeanor and for her expressive hands. Resisting the temptation to coast on the popularity of some of the most familiar music in the Western world, she shaped and phrased the piece as if she were conducting it for first time. The result was a hybrid performance full of excitement and passion, and one which worked surprisingly well in the headlong rush towards the final dramatic and intense chorus. But just as there is no single venue in which the Messiah will not cast its magic, so there is no definitive type or scale of performance. This interpretation was very much Medawar Nachef’s own, which was well suited to her obvious mission of connecting individuals and communities through Handel’s extraordinary composition.

The concert ended with the Hallelujah Chorus, which is typically appended to Part II when the entire oratorio is not being performed. It was, of course, what the crowd was waiting for. Only a few of the audience members knew the piece well enough to stand as soon as the chorus began, in the time-honored if apocryphal tradition, but the rest of the audience soon followed them. The oratotio ended after that with the Amen from the final movement of Part III. So after the audience stood for the Hallelujah, they then sat down to listen to the Amen followed by a standing ovation. And a standing audience assures a standing ovation, in this case a really heart-felt one that would surely have been given in any case.

Messiah is the calling-card piece and the reason most of the audience was there. Unnecessary and restrained speeches from the organizer, photography and media discretion as well as a printed version of the libretto would undoubtedly have enhanced the experience.

3 thoughts on “Conductor Joanna Medawar Nachef Captures the Magic of G.F. Handel’s Messiah

  1. Dear Nelida; thanks your article on the Beirut Chants Festival opening night with the Christmas past of the Oratorio. I enjoyed reading the part on Joanna Nashef and the choir. I was not impressed either by the barytone rendition. All in all, it was a nice festive evening. Thanks again.

  2. Dear Nelida
    Since we are blessed with an online multimedia facility of FB, it would have been an excellent opportunity for us to hear and listen what we have missed

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