Throughout my adulthood, as a chorister, soloist, and reviewer, I can recall no Christmas season when the mighty choruses, brilliant arias, and orchestral magnificence of Handel's masterpiece Messiah has not been the musical centerpiece in the most wondrous season of the year. This year I and many other lovers of music have been favored with three very satisfying performances in our immediate area within the last week.
The first of these was a performance in Duke Chapel by the Chapel Choir and Orchestra under the direction of Rodney Wynkoop, whose intimate musical understanding of Messiah was clear from beginning to end of the lengthy presentation. His handling of chorus, soloists, and orchestra was excellent. Particularly admirable were his solutions to problems of style which cause many choirs to stumble, despite their best efforts, in Handel's numerous, lengthy, and very difficult choruses, especially those in Parts II and III.
Great oratorios of the high Baroque demand high levels of technical skill in both soloists and choirs. These works present all singers involved with long lines of rapidly moving melismatic passage work, and with choirs providing a homophonic foundation, and all of that must be in precise ensemble. Even among professional groups, the parts represent a demanding task.
Wynkoop's choir was of considerable size and made up of well-trained voices, but the larger the choir the more difficulty the conductor faces. As a result of painstaking work, the Duke Chapel Choir sang one stunning chorus after another, particularly in Part II. The energy never flagged, the melismas seldom deteriorated into a smear of sound, and the huge crescendos, so effective with a big choir, left the audience breathless at all the proper places. There were also some beautiful moments when the singers produced a whisper-soft, intense choral sound to enunciate several very moving, affecting texts set in very slow lines that made everyone listening lean forward to hear. The energy and the vocal excitement held up until the final chorus, "Worthy Is the Lamb That Was Slain." Here, with its majestic unrelenting power and its long Amen, there were indications some voices were tiring.
Soloists Kendra Colton, soprano, Robert Bracy, tenor, Mark Crayton, countertenor, and Stephen Morscheck, bass-baritone, were able musicians of high technical skill and full understanding of the music and texts they sang. Colton particularly must be singled out for the beauty of her voice, her ability to sing the long melismas in "Rejoice Greatly, O Daughters of Zion," and the sustained, intense legato that Handel insists upon in "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth." Bracy had the dubious pleasure of beginning the evening's vocal fireworks with that well-known tenor trap, "Ev'ry Valley Shall be Exalted," which he handled with great skill. None of his other arias were lightweights, either, but he vanquished all difficulties. Crayton also sang very well, but the orchestra almost always covered up the lower register of his voice. Of all his arias, the most moving was the lengthy "He Was Despised." Morscheck was in excellent form in all his arias, but he was overshadowed by the trumpet in "The Trumpet Shall Sound"; what Handel intended as a duet between instrument and singer often seemed to be a trumpet solo.
Finally, Wynkoop's orchestra deserves our admiration because its sound was exactly right. All its musical lines were played with crystal clarity, perfect intonation, and great beauty. The playing of the Sinfonia illustrated all these orchestral strengths.
The second Messiah production of the week was held in the wide-open spaces of Meymandi Concert Hall. It featured the North Carolina Symphony's excellent chamber orchestra, four soloists, and a small choir of carefully chosen singers conducted by Music Director Grant Llewellyn. The smaller choir was exactly what was needed to sing the melismas cleanly so that every note was heard. The total effect was dazzling; the singers' energy level remained high throughout the evening and carried them safely through the exhausting final chorus. The choral sound was pure and a pleasure to hear; intonation was perfect; the intense, whisper-soft legato singing at the end of "All We Like Sheep" and in "For by Man Came Death" projected the affecting texts as well as I have ever heard them done. Like Rodney Wynkoop's larger chorus a week earlier, this one showed the affirmative results of exacting rehearsal techniques. Moreover, because of its smaller size, Llewellyn's choir could work successfully to make their vowels as alike as possible and to make sure their voices moved together to produce the homogeneous sound characteristic of great choruses.
The soloists — Nancy Argento, soprano, Daniel Taylor, countertenor, Benjamin Butterfield, tenor, and Philip Cutlip, baritone — are capable Baroque singers who had no trouble with the technical demands of Handel's music. Collectively, they compared favorably with the Duke Chapel soloists, especially in their capacity for inventive ornamentations. But in the North Carolina Symphony performance some of the ornaments did not work very well. Every soloist frequently employed ornaments too long or complex for the note or phrase in which they were introduced. In their efforts to execute such ornaments, the singers encountered intonation problems varying in degree, and they also could not retain the tempo set for them.
These problems, however, seem relatively unimportant when evaluating the overall effectiveness of the soloists. All of Taylor's arias were well done, especially his "For He is Like a Refiner's Fire," "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion," and "He Was Despised." Butterfield's brilliant tenor voice is especially suited to the Baroque style, and he showed that he was capable of the formidable coloratura passages of the first big aria in Part I as well as the highly dramatic style of "Thou Shalt Break Them with a Rod of Iron"' near the end of Part II.
Cutlip's bass arias in Part I, especially "The People That Walketh in Darkness," were well done, as was his greatly-anticipated bravura aria in Part III, "The Trumpet Shall Sound," in which he and the solo trumpet offer a great display of the singer's vocal power and the trumpeter's ability to play in duet style. Argento, too, is well schooled and sings all her arias in Messiah quite acceptably. Her only problem is vocal quality; she sings without enough resonance, as if her voice is produced only at her lips. The result is an overly bright sound. The best example of this problem occurred in her treatment of "Rejoice Greatly," in which the coloratura passages seemed like a light that is too bright.
Much can be said in praise of the orchestra's performance. In general, all the instrumentalists played with great skill, revealed particularly in their superb intonation, their pure, crisp sound, uncluttered by vibrato, and their expressiveness. All their playing in support of soloists was faultless. Their performances of the Sinfonia and the Pastoral Symphony were lovely to hear.
The third performance of Messiah concluded Messiah week in our musical community. This one, presented by the North Carolina Master Chorale, orchestra, and soloists, conducted by Alfred E. Sturgis, Music Director, was as dissimilar from the other two as day is from night. There were many beautiful, thrilling moments in this performance, but there were also some problems, most of them arising from the sheer vocal weight of the Chorale.
In this performance, the approach to the choruses seemed to be the production of group singing in the grand style. Choral passages overwhelmed the listeners with roof-lifting fortes or almost inaudible pianissimos, with dynamic gradations in between. Although this approach was not in the Baroque style, it was nonetheless effective and well received by much of the audience. Even a purist like me had to appreciate the glorious sound the Chorale produced. But the melismas were lost in the power. A much lighter approach would probably have allowed a great deal of this material to be heard. As it was, when the melismas did come through they were more a smear of sound than clearly-articulated notes and phrases. In the melismatic lines of "He Shall Purify," different vowels were substituted for the ones Handel wrote, with the assumption such substitution would make the melismas clearer. But this did not work because the substitutions sounded totally out of place. Fortunately, the practice was abandoned after this chorus.
As skeptical as all this commentary sounds, keep in mind the Chorale's great vocal power made choruses like the monumental conclusion as grand an aural experience as possible. But there were also numerous points in the performance when the Chorale's vocal weight caused the inevitable slow-down. The resulting loss of unity between chorus and orchestra meant Sturgis had to work very hard to restore balance.
The work of the soloists, soprano Andrea Edith Moore, particularly tenor Daniel Stein, bass Donald Milholin, and mezzo-soprano Mary Gayle Greene, was entirely satisfactory. They introduced suitable, effective ornamentation at the right points in their arias, and they clearly had had useful experience in singing Baroque music.
Daniel Stein was the most successful of the four. His exceptionally fine tenor voice is especially suited to the Baroque style, and his coloratura passages in "Ev'ry Valley," his beautiful legato in the several short ariosos in Part II, and his effective dramatic singing in "Thou Shalt Break Them with a Rod of Iron" were the highlights of his performance.
Donald Milholin's big bass voice provided a great deal of vocal excitement, in particular his ability to use his great upper range to conclude some arias an octave above Handel's notation. His technique served him well, but all too often he fell into the singer's greatest trap: singing notes and phrases as notes and phrases rather than as expressions of the text. The majority of his solos were very listenable, in particular "Thus Saith the Lord" and "The People That Walketh in Darkness" in Part I, and "Why Do the Nations so Furiously Rage" in Part II; as one might have expected, his most exciting singing was in "The Trumpet Shall Sound" in Part III. Mary Gayle Greene's rich, velvety mezzo-soprano voice was admirably suited to her solos, and it was a pleasure to hear her throughout the performance. Her treatment of "For He is Like a Refiner's Fire" and "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion" was the highlight of her evening's work.
Moore's soprano voice, however, disclosed some major technical flaws that made her arias less effective than she might have wished. In every one of them her voice lacked a real vibrato; in fact, what everyone heard was an extremely rapid tremolo, which too often made some pitches hard to understand and others plainly very sharp.
Sturgis' chamber orchestra did very well, supporting the soloists and the Chorale under the direction of this fine conductor. The performance would have been strengthened by crisper attacks and some separation between notes. The playing of the Pastoral Symphony revealed their best work as very effective musicians.
In conclusion, these three performances of Messiah were very enjoyable experiences despite — or perhaps because of — the differences among them. They illustrate a well-known truth: great music has a power and beauty enhanced but never damaged by differences in the ways musicians present it. Performed in strict Baroque style or not, Handel is Handel. We are all grateful for that.