For many choirs, large and small, in predominantly Christian regions of our country, Handel's Messiah is the annual coffer-filler, akin in many ways to Nutcracker (in communities not yet invaded by the Rockettes), Cinderella, A Christmas Carol, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Hansel und Gretel. The challenge for presenters of these chestnuts, of course, is keeping 'em from getting moldy. And never mind that not all of 'em were intended for the Christmas season. Messiah, for example, was meant, initially, for Easter; and this – along with its length, when done more or less complete – probably accounts for the predominance of "Christmas" versions of the great oratorio, which embrace Part One (the Christmas portion) with the "Hallelujah Chorus" (from the end of Part II) tacked on to get everyone to his/her feet. There are lots of regional renditions of this truncated version, and there are performances, too, of more-or-less "complete" editions – of which there are many variants. There are also opportunities for amateur singers to join in the fun – Messiah must be nearly everyone's favorite oratorio. The best known local performances of the whole thing – always sold out, thanks in part (one must think) to the beauty of the venue – are given in Duke Chapel every year.
Given the score's immense popularity, it came as a surprise that the North Carolina Master Chorale, the large Raleigh-based choir, had not undertaken Messiah for ten years, so its December 11 performance in Meymandi Concert Hall – the first presentation of Handel's masterwork there – was keenly anticipated, and the reading was well worth the wait. Music Director Alfred E. Sturgis assembled a good quartet of soloists and a small but generally effective chamber orchestra, whose members are mostly well-known area freelance instrumentalists. The work was nearly complete – only one important aria was cut (and there are musicological reasons for omitting it) – and the edition – Watkins Shaw's – has become a classic.
Normally, reviews of Messiah (and other oratorios and masses, too) concentrate first on the guest artists, but in this case it was the work of the huge choir that consistently commanded attention. There were about 160 singers on the stage – not in the choir stalls above the platform – and they performed in quartets, which is probably the very best way to ensure good blend and balance. The NCMC is reasonably well-proportioned anyway – other choirs must wonder where Sturgis has found all those tenors – so the approach worked handsomely. Insiders report that the work was prepared in sections and the decision to stand in quartets came late in the game. That might have been a gamble, but for sure it kept the singers on their toes, and it paid off very well in truly splendid readings of the many choruses. There was fine dynamic contrast, individual sections sounded wonderful, the lines were crystal clear, and almost every word came through, making the text leaflets almost unnecessary. From the outset (with "And the glory of the Lord") to the magnificent rendition of the grand finale ("Worthy is the Lamb," and its glorious fugal "Amen"), Meymandi was a great place to be on this occasion, hearing this outstanding choir perform Messiah.
The soloists were more than fine, most of the time. I use these terms because we heard the first half from the lower balcony, a place one should probably avoid unless someone in charge of the hall can do something about the amplification used to boost the sound under the overhang, for the balances favored the orchestra at the expense of the solo artists (aside from the tenor) – and the orchestra itself often seemed strident and scrappy. After shifting upstairs to the top balcony, there were no such problems – the orchestra sounded quite fine, and the solo artists were in proper perspective. The use of any amplification in Meymandi sort of defeats the whole point of having built it, in my view, and it should be the responsibility of the operators of the hall to ensure that none is used without the permission of the artistic leader of the events given there.
Tenor John Daniecki was the first among equals on this occasion, and he was in superb form throughout. Bass-baritone David Mellnik did quite well, although here and there his lower notes did not emerge clearly against the accompaniment. Soprano Carla LeFevre sang beautifully and projected fairly well – her diction was not always crisp. Mezzo-soprano Robin Lynne Frye made many pleasing contributions during the course of the performance but seemed, in this setting, to have the smallest voice of the visitors. One suspects that the use of an electronic organ for the continuo worked to Frye's disadvantage.
The continuo parts were played by organist Susan Lohr and cellist Jonathan Kramer, augmented from time to time by bassist Winston Budrow. The other string sections were headed by violinists Margaret Partridge and Ariadna Ilika and violist Connie Lorber. The trumpet players were Don Eagle, easily the best Messiah brass guy in this neck of the woods, and Paul Neebe. Rounding out the orchestra were oboists Bo Newsome and Carrie Shull, bassoonist Michael Burns, and timpanist Stephen Burke.
Sturgis was in his element – he's one of our best choral directors, and this Messiah sounded fresh and rock-solid throughout. It was good to hear a performance of this quality in Raleigh again. Indeed, it was good to hear the work, period – the clarity afforded by the generally superior acoustics of Meymandi Concert Hall (absent those aforementioned problems with the sound in the first balcony) should encourage the NCMC to undertake the score more often than once every decade.