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The string of oratorios by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), including Messiah, are the result of the prohibition against the performance of operas during Lent in Great Britain. Handel was the very model of the practical entrepreneurial musician Leopold Mozart wanted his son to be. Handel saved every scrap of music he had composed and unhesitatingly recycled it when needed. David Levy's excellent program notes for this second annual series of Messiah performances point out just such a case: Handel derived "His Yoke is Easy" and "And He shall purify" from rearrangements of material in a 1741 Italian chamber duet, "Quel fior che' all' alba ride."
The December 2007 performance of Messiah by Robert Moody, the Winston-Salem Symphony and the Winston-Salem Symphony Festival Chorus, was a new local venture for the music director. The audience turnout was very encouraging. My only quibble in a glowing review was not hearing the full force of the soloists' voices from my side balcony seating. Nave seating for this second annual performance was ideal and let the full nuances of the soloists be heard. When I review an oratorio concert, like Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, I scribble from one to four "+" marks by each recitative, aria, or chorus, indicating from routine to superb. My text sheet for this performance has "++++" by virtually every number.
Moody used a picked chorus of fifty-two along with an appropriately scaled chamber orchestra, a harpsichord, a fine chamber organ and, for the end of the last chorus only, the full bass notes of the Centenary United Methodist Church organ. The church's acoustics are perfect for oratorio performances, warm without a too-long reverberation period. Members of the Winston-Salem Symphony played in lock-step ensemble and instantly responded to every change of dynamics or expression Moody indicated. There were several outstanding solo turns by instrumentalists. Concertmaster Corine Brouwer's violin highlighted the soprano solo "I know my Redeemer liveth" The antiphonal trumpets, stationed in opposite balconies, were brilliantly played by Anita Cirba and Kenneth Wilmot, while Cirba's remarkable breath control in "The Trumpet shall sound" was rivaled by the radiant sound of her tone.
Great care for clarity of diction characterized the performances of the chorus and the four soloists. The male choristers were sandwiched between the women, standing on risers behind the orchestra. The chorus "Lift up your heads," with its complex phrasing, and the dramatically-paced "Since by man came death" were outstanding examples of superb preparation of Moody's chorus.
Tenor Keith Jameson was a welcome discovery and an ideal performer for Messiah. His timbre and tone were warm and winning, his intonation was exact, and his voice was evenly supported across its range. His soaring high notes had a clarion quality. He conveyed Christ's desolation in the recitative "Thy rebuke hath broken His heart" and aria "Behold, and see" superbly.
Soprano Lisa Saffer's bight, silvery voice had an almost instrumental quality. Her timbre was pleasing and her high notes were precisely placed. Her dramatic phrasing of the aria "Rejoice greatly" was very effective. The full, rich mezzo-soprano of Mary Gayle Greene is a well-known and treasured quality throughout the state. Her solid lower range was high-lighted in "the glory of the Lord" section of her aria "O, thou that tellest good tidings to Zion." Her delivery of "He was despised" was a masterclass in how this well-known piece should be given.
The full, sumptuous baritone of Robert Overman was astounding. This was the best performance of many fine ones I have heard him do over the years. It was capped by magnificent delivery of the recitative "Behold, I tell you a mystery" and the final aria, "The trumpet shall sound." His beautifully judged breath control throughout this challenging aria was literally breathtaking and contended only by Cirba's smoothly managed trumpet following every twist and turn.
The two successive and well-received performances of Messiah by Moody and his Winston-Salem Symphony musicians ought to herald a new Twin Cities yuletide tradition. Bravo!