The Hendersonville Symphony and the Greenville Chorale joined forces for their third annual holiday production of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah in Brevard College’s Porter Center for the Performing Arts. Two performances were slated for this day with one the previous evening (December 12) at the Peace Center for the Performing Arts, Greenville, SC. Symphony Music Director and Conductor, Thomas Joiner, served as concertmaster, while Bingham L. Vick, Jr., the Chorale’s Conductor and Artistic Director, conducted the ensembles. Elizabeth Bennett, professor of organ at Gardner-Webb University, and principal cellist Christopher Hutton were the continuo players. The soloists were soprano Karen Parks, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, tenor Keith Jones, and bass-baritone Jacob Will, all seasoned performers with extensive opera and oratorio experience. Jones is an Associate Professor of Voice at Converse College where he conducts their opera productions and directs the Spartanburg Festival Chorus and the Converse Chorale. Parks, Jones, and Will all attended Furman University.
Messiah is, of course, the iconic piece of this season, although Handel composed it as an encapsulation of the Christian theology surrounding not just Christ’s birth, but also his death and resurrection. Premiered in Dublin in 1742 as “a benefit concert for the Musical Society, Charitable Infirmary, and for the relief of imprisoned debtors,” Messiah’s powerfully theatrical music gradually gained acceptance against a tide of religious conservatives, until, by the end of the composer’s life, the annual performances of the beloved oratorio became a highlight of the London concert season. The work has, like many much-performed works involving singers, undergone significant changes through the years, mainly morphing into a grand spectacle with massed choirs and instrumentalists. This performance involved 122 choral singers, arranged across the back of the stage, and 45 orchestral players — a far cry from Handel’s original conception, yet fairly typical of a modern-day performance. Alas, there was no harpsichord, but a dull sounding electronic keyboard situated directly in front of the conductor; even so, it was barely audible and lacked the rhythmic pop and ping of the historical instrument. With so much money and time spent on these performances, I find it perplexing that this corner was cut.
Vick’s careful preparation of the Chorale was evidenced in their clear diction and understanding of each choral movement as musical rhetorical gestures. The many murderously difficult melismatic passages, frequently used as fugal subjects, were stunningly executed, with each part faithful to their shaping. The balance was also very fine, both within the chorale and between the vocal and instrumental forces. The execution of “double dotted” eighth-sixteenth note pairs in the opening Sinfony [Overture] and in the choral “Behold the Lamb of God” was crisp and clean, with remarkable ensemble in both chorus and orchestra. “And the glory of the Lord” was the one real disappointment, as it lacked metric accents that would have alleviated its plodding heaviness in the orchestra.
The highlights were many. Jones’s “Thou shalt break them” and Bishop’s “But who may abide the day of his coming?” were delivered with snarling dramatic flair and vocal finesse. Parks’ “I know that my redeemer liveth” exhibited the softer and more nuanced side of her vocal craft, and Will (with Larry Black playing an exquisite trumpet obbligato with elegantly improvised ornaments) stole the show with “The Trumpet shall sound.” All four singers really enjoyed their high notes, and only occasionally indulged in over singing them. Vick showed that he knew every note of every part and conducted like the seasoned veteran he is.
One tires of hearing a piece performed frequently and badly, and Messiah often falls victim to being “overloved” — much like a well-trampled national park. Oh no, not another performance! But, oh yes, another one, and this one was good!