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According to its website, the annual performances by the Duke University Chapel Choir of Handel's Messiah have "become a major musical phenomenon in the community over the last sixty years." I have attended these, at intervals, over the past thirty years, and I cannot recall any finer than the December 5 performance. In decades to come, we suspect music lovers will look back at the era of Rodney Wynkoop's direction as the "Golden Era" of the series. No other conductor has been so skilled at keeping complex musical lines clear in the difficult acoustics of Duke Chapel. He has honed the Chapel Choir into an extraordinarily flexible and precise musical instrument with tight ensemble. Great examples of this virtuosity were in the wonderful clarity heard in two settings that used the full chorus, "Surely he hath borne our griefs" early in Part II and in the concluding "Worthy is the lamb." When we first attended choral concerts in the area, most choirs had anemic male voices. The Chapel Choir is beautifully and evenly balanced, fully capable of a rich bass sound, such as heard in the dramatic "The Lord gave the word," in which men's choir alternated with the full chorus.
This year's Messiah featured fine soloists of considerable parity in vocal quality. All had very firm voices, and all were outstanding in projecting their texts, which were clearly enunciated. Soprano Jennifer Brennan-Hondorp produced a delightful trill on the word "heathen" in her air "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion." Many of the "meatier" texts fell to mezzo-soprano Margaret Bragle. I may be the only lover of Handel's opera seria in northern Orange County, but I was taken with her relatively verismo approach to her air "He was despised and rejected of men," in which she brought expressive body language to the usually staid oratorio style. Truly clarion tenors in area oratorio performances have been rare here, so every sound that rang from tenor Robert Bracey was a joy; I was purring (silently) from the first "Comfort ye my people." Fine baritones have not been rare, but Charles Robert Stephens is another in the tradition. He brought the right amount of weight to his air "Why do the nations so furiously rage," which was articulated very clearly at a good fast tempo. One of the great pleasures of this performance was in savoring the discrete ornaments with which all the soloists embroidered their repeated lines.
The ad hoc orchestra, as fine as any that the series has presented, was composed of three-quarters of the Ciompi Quartet, free lancers, and members of the North Carolina Symphony and Greensboro Symphony. A number of solos, such as the mezzo-soprano air "He was despised," were beautifully supported by violinists Hsiao-mei Ku and Tracy Finkelshteyn, violist Jonathan Bagg, cellist Fred Raimi, and double bassist Robbie Link, with David Arcus, harpsichord. The latter was usually audible throughout much of the performance. Arcus also played the chapel's Flentrop chamber organ. Trumpeters Don Eagle and Van Zimmerman along with timpanist Gary Evoniuk brought a truly festive quality to the rousing choruses that they supported. The performance was so engaging that it was hard to believe three full hours had passed.
The Duke Chapel Messiah will be repeated on December 6 and 7. See our calendar for details.