George Frideric Handel's Messiah is one of those masterpieces that was a hit at its premiere and has continued to move both amateurs and connoisseurs to the present day. Its dramatic arch of prophecy and arrival of Jesus, his suffering, death, and resurrection, and the promise of everlasting life for believers creates a moving tripartite narrative. And in the hands of a master theatrical composer such as Handel, the result is powerful.
Under the earnest direction of the Winston-Salem Symphony Music Director Robert Moody, the combined forces of orchestra, chorus and four soloists presented a stirring performance in the acoustically rich environment of Centenary United Methodist Church. A large audience filled the sanctuary and balconies to be part of this annual production, begun in 2007. The talented soloists included Kathryn Mueller. soprano, David Trudgen, counter-tenor, Daniel Stein, tenor, and Troy Cook, bass. Terrific diction was evident throughout the evening, and each soloist added some engaging embellishments.
A powerful and dramatic tenor, Stein immediately caught the audience's attention with his lyric and commanding singing in the opening recitative "Comfort ye." His animated singing in numbers like "Thou shalt break them" was wonderful as well.
Cook's singing warmed throughout the evening. At the outset, the orchestra sometimes covered his runs in "Refiner's fire," but his more lyric singing in the aria was lovely and tender. "The trumpet shall sound" was rock solid.
Trudgen's male alto voice substituted for the more common woman's alto voice, and the change in color was one of many surprises in this performance. The basic timbre was quite lovely, well-suited to the aria "O, thou that tellest good tidings," although there were passages that were not quite in tune. His duet with Stein, "O Death, where is thy sting?" was particularly enjoyable.
What a wonder soprano Mueller turned out to be. Aided by the ringing acoustics of the space, her theatrical entrance from the rear of the church in "There were shepherds" was incredibly effective. Her singing of "Rejoice greatly" was stunning, clear as a bell, and featured some pyrotechnic vocal embellishments. Her more lyric singing as in "I know that my Redeemer liveth" was gorgeous.
As good as the soloists were, Messiah is primarily known for its magnificent choruses. The 70-voice Symphony Chorale (which could have used a few more tenors), well-prepared by Director Carole Ott, seemed up for anything conductor Moody threw at them. Although the tempo in "The glory of the Lord" seemed a bit pedestrian, most of the choral movements were brisk, in fact, sometimes too much so. This amateur choir had some difficulty getting through the dangerously fast runs. The more staid passages, such as "Behold the Lamb of God" and "Worthy is the lamb" were solid and commanding. And the "Hallelujah" chorus is always a high point of any Messiah. Moody's decision to institute unusual tempo changes (slowing down the "The kingdom of this world" passage) helped avoid another run-of-the-mill performance.
It seemed clear that Moody was interested in bringing some distinct and personal elements to the score, most noticeable in his animated and creative arm and hand motions, urging the musicians to catch the precise character of the music. Often he tried to highlight dance elements of the score, even having the choir sway to accent the triple meter while singing "O, thou that tellest good tidings;" a bit over the top for my taste. He did not use a baton throughout the evening, even in the purely orchestral movements. The choir sang without a score in "Since by man came death," ostensibly so the ensemble could follow his dramatic changes more easily. One must applaud a conductor who brings some personality into the score to avoid a hackneyed presentation. However, sometimes even his "new" elements, such as frequent pausing before the final chord of a choral number, became a bit irritating.
The rich acoustics of the church, while aiding the singers, sometimes caused ensemble problems in the orchestra, such as the opening Sinfony, which took a while to settle down, or in "The trumpet shall sound," in which the trumpet and orchestra seemed a bit out of synch, at least from where I was sitting.
Holding the entire proceedings together in any Baroque piece is the continuo group – keyboard and cello. Nancy Johnston was the able harpsichordist and likewise, James Jones on organ. Cellist Brooks Whitehouse provided the rock solid bass line.
Messiah will be repeated on December 18 in the same venue. For details, see the sidebar.