Frédéric Louis Ritter
Price: $1, secured seats .50 extra
13 January 2019
The New York Harmonic Society has completed arrangements for the performance of Handel’s oratorio “The Messiah” on Christmas night. Among those who will take part on the occasion are Miss Julia E. Houston of Boston, Miss Adelaide Phillips, Mr. L. Simpson, and Mr. Beckett.
“We are to have the accustomed Christmas performance of ‘The Messiah,’ on the evening of that day, at Steinway Hall. It is as much a duty of every musical Christian (and we hold that man can’t be altogether a good Christian who is not more or less musical) to go to hear ‘The Messiah’ performed once a year as it is to go to church. Handel’s preaching, moreover, has a decided advantage in point of interest over that heard from most of our pulpits—it is the purest gospel teaching and magnificently expressed. The benighted Musselman goes his pilgrimage over weary deserts to the temple at Mecca to kiss the Kaaba, the sacred stone—how much easier the pilgrimage to Steinway Hall, and how much pleasanter the temple itself, especially since its decoration, than the Kaaba, black with the kisses of the faithful.”
“The usual Christmas night performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at Steinway Hall was this year highly enjoyable. Miss Houston, the Boston vocalist, took the soprano solos and was favorably received. In the fine contralto solos Miss Phillips was heard to excellent advantage, and her performance was perhaps the leading vocal feature of the evening. Mr. Simpson in the tenor music and Mr. Beckett, a new bass singer, both gave satisfaction, and the choruses were rendered with good effect. The selection of Christmas night for this annual performance interferes with so many family gatherings, that the audience at Steinway Hall last night was larger than might have been expected.”
“The usual annual performance of ‘The Messiah’ by the Harmonic Society took place last night at Steinway Hall. It is a noble custom to give this work on the night of Christmas, and one that we fervently hope will survive our day and generation. We hope also that the Harmonic Society may be perpetuated to give it, long after all the voices that sang it last night are silenced and remembered only in the musty records of the institution.
“As to the work itself, it possesses, if ever a work did, the principle of eternal youth. It is founded on the eternal rock of simplicity and truth.The themes are broad, simple, and noble, and are treated from a point of inspiration that no other ecclesiastical composer has ever reached. Of certain of the choruses Handel himself said that his state of mind was such at the time of their composition that ‘whether it was in the body or out of the body’ that he wrote them he could not tell. The word, “Hallelujah” has been set to music once for all; no other can hope ever to wed it to any other form of musical expression that the one that Handel has given in his mighty chorus, whose sublimity so directly appeals to that secret consciousness of inspiration in the mind of every man that everywhere over the world, wherever it is sung, all reverently rise to their feet and acknowledge its might and majesty and its expression of the highest praise that mortal man can give to the ‘Lord of lords, and King of kings.’
“Such a work deserves a fit rendering. This it cannot be said to receive from the Harmonic Society. The parts are not well balanced nor adjusted to the orchestra. The latter was too small for the number of singers, and the organ, being out of repair, gave no material aid.
“The sopranos, though numerically strong, are actually weak, were afraid to afraid to attack their notes, and sang in a spiritless manner. In one chorus, ‘For unto us,’ they flattered very badly. The directors have probably been too careless in admitting members, and in not insisting on sufficient musical acquirement. The Society was fortunate in those by whom it was assisted. Miss Houston, of Boston, sang the soprano part, Miss Adelaide Phillips the alto, Mr. Simpson the tenor, and Mr. William H. Beckett the bass. The first and last named are new to New York. Miss Houston has a pure, even voice, of delightful quality and under thorough control and cultivation, and made a most favorable mark. Miss Phillips sang like the true artist that she is. Remembering the triumphs of many vocalists in the divine aria ‘He was despised and rejected,’ we say without hesitation that we have never heard it so well sung as by Miss Phillips last evening.
“Mr. Beckett, the bass, made his first public appearance. He is a valuable acquisition. If called upon to say what one adjective most clearly characterized his singing, we should say refinement. His voice is pure and even throughout its register, and flexible. It needs must be that to sing Handel’s music. This admits of no second-rate singing. It searches and sifts a voice from its highest to its lowest note, and if there is a fault anywhere finds it out. Those long roulades are not to be got away from or slurred over—they must be sung, and well sung too, or they revenge themselves on the vocalist by bringing him at once to disgrace. All the artists we have named stood the test. Mr. Beckett sang that most difficult and trying aria, ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together,’ with especial force and artistic excellence, taking the rapid passages with ease and finish.
“Mr. Ritter was the conductor. We are not an admirer of his method of controlling chorus and orchestra. They always seem unsteady under his hand, and there is no doubt that in the beginning of the oratorio his leading of several of the pieces was very much too slow. The ‘Comfort ye, my people’ dragged unaccountably. Leading from a piano score is never calculated to give a conductor a very firm hold on his orchestra. The quaint pastoral symphony that divides the prophetic from the narrative part of the work was well played. The theme of this bit of symphony is as old almost as the Christian era. The pipers, or pifferari, of the Calabrian peasantry have a custom of making a pilgrimage to Rome every Christmas, there to play before the various shrines of the Virgin. This is the melody they play and have played for centuries. Handel did well in incorporating it into his immortal work. A word of praise is due to Mr. Dietz for his excellent trumpet playing in the air. ‘And the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,’ though we have always though the conception itself unworthy Handel’s genius. The theme was the most majestic that could have occupied his pen—the raising of the dead for final judgment; and he found no better method of tearing it than by setting a trumpet against a voice in echo and repetition of trivial phrases. It is almost a specifies of trickery, for certainly the ‘last trumpet’ is a noble figure of speech that becomes simply absurd when it is put into the tangible shape of an orchestral instrument. It is the swift descent from the sublime to the ridiculous.
“In conclusion, we may say that we are thankful to the Harmonic Society that they give us ‘The Messiah’ at all. We should be doubly thankful if they would present it in better shape. It is a shame that New York should be without an efficient chorus, and one that would command admiration rather than challenge criticism.”
“The New-York Harmonic Society gave their time-honored Christmas performance of ‘The Messiah’ last night at Steinway’s, before a large audience, which filled all the good seats in the main hall and flowed over into some of the benches of the two smaller rooms. There was not, however, by any means so full a house as there was last Christmas, although the receipts may have been as large as usual. Free tickets are scattered around so lavishly now-a-days that the pecuniary success of a concert can be judged by no man except the treasurer. There were changes in the solo parts, Mr. Simpson alone of all our old stand-by’s being on the programme, and he, we may say at once, acquitted himself with more than his accustomed excellence. His ‘Comfort ye my people’ and ‘Every valley’ were particularly good. The soprano was Miss Julia E. Houston, a Boston vocalist, who enjoys a high popularity, if we are not mistaken, in her own city, and ought to meet with equal favor here. Her voice is pure, strong, and sympathetic in quality, but a little bit worn in the upper notes. Her style is excellent, her culture advanced, and her taste and intelligence unquestionable. She made altogether, on this her first appearance in New-York, a very pleasant impression, and we shall be glad to hear her again. The alto solos were taken by Miss Adelaide Phillipps, who is, next to Parepa-Rosa, the best oratorio singer in America. Her rich and powerful tones and her true artistic feeling were made doubly acceptable by the recollection of some of the concert singers who have been permitted to profane Handel under the auspices of the Harmonic Society in former years. Miss Phillipps comprehends Handel, and has all the ability to be his interpreter. Her singing of ‘He shall feed His flock’ and ‘O thou that tellest’ was a real treat. Mr. William H. Beckett, the bass, made his first appearance in oratorio, and was very successful. He has not a very strong voice, but he has a very true and a very pleasant one; he sings correctly, and he sings with good taste.
“The choruses were much better than they were at the last performance of ‘The Messiah,’ but then at that last performance they were very bad indeed. Briefly we may say that last night they were generally in tune and in time but lacked volume and spirit. The meagerness of the effect however was due in great measure to the faulty arrangement of the seats. Singers and orchestra were all on the same plane, and many of the voices were therefore half smothered. The instrumental portion of the performance was good, and we were pleased to notice a better accord between the conductor, Mr. Ritter, and his singers and players, than used to be the case last season. Mr. Connolly did the best that any man could do with a very sick organ. Before ‘The Messiah’ is performed again we trust that an instrument which can be kept in tune will be substituted for the dreadful thing which now occupies a corner of the platform.”
“The Messiah was given on Christmas evening, at Steinway Hall, by the N.Y. Harmonic Society. The soloists were Miss Houston (Boston), Miss Adelaide Phillips (ditto), Mr. Simpson and Mr. Beckett, and the performance was conducted by Mr. Ritter. Having been prevented—by severe illness—from attending, I can only say on the authority of a musical friend, that the oratorio was never before given (in this city) with such uniform excellence. I am also given to understand that Miss Houston and Mr. Beckett made a most favorable impression, while Miss Phillips and Mr. Simpson—old favorites—fully sustained their well-earned reputation.”