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The Sanctuary Choir of First Baptist Church, Southern Pines, presented Handel's Messiah at 7:00 p.m. on December 21. This choir was rightly selected to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City in February 2003. Classical voices of North Carolina will indeed ring out on 57th Street, and would that there could be an assignment for a CVNC music critic there!
If there is any criticism of the December 21 performance, it would be that the voices outsang the orchestra. The instrumental underpinning seemed a bit thin until the selections from Part II and Part III. The performance was abbreviated to two hours, with tastefully selected omissions that left the story intact. We didn't lose "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth," "The Trumpet Shall Sound," or "Thy Rebuke Hath Broken His Heart" from the soloists, or "Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs," "Hallelujah Chorus," "Since By Man Came Death," or "Worthy Is the Lamb," followed by the "Amen Chorus," by the Sanctuary Choir.
Benny Edwards took command with a steady baton leading classical tempi, solidly paced and never too slow. He must have been influenced by the work of Sir David Willcocks and his peers. Edwards has been the Music Director at First Baptist Church for about a decade, building a substantial music program there.
The soloists were well chosen with an ear to a balanced quartet. However, in this case the women outshone the men as they were remarkably well-matched. I first noticed that Susan Morrow was the most remarkable contralto I have heard in my many years of experience with Messiah in New Jersey, New Hampshire and ten years in Winston-Salem in the '70s. Her voice carries a strength of quality that is never harsh or lackluster. She sang assertively, with clarity and expression "to die for," as they say, to make a strong point. Her presence conveyed the essence of "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd" and, not watching at the time, as the words changed to "Come Unto Me," I thought for two measures that it was the same voice in another range. Indeed it was now soprano Teresa Radomski, completing the story.
Radomski was new to the voice faculty at Wake Forest University when we lived in Winston-Salem, and I remember her as a lyric soprano. However, her voice has developed, at least for this role, a lovely spinto quality that reminds me of Janice Harsanyi, then also of Winston-Salem and often selected as soloist for their now 70-year-old run of annual Messiah concerts. Harsanyi was a national touring artist, so although she lived there, based at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Messiah organizer Nancy Ann Harris, not yet Greenfield, would consider using Harsanyi despite her policy to avoid selection of local artists because of a natural jealousy among soloists. I regret that a brief illness kept me from reviewing Mrs. Greenfield's 70th Anniversary performance at Reynolds Auditorium in Winston-Salem on December 1, 2002. Nevertheless it should be noted at least in passing as a superb accomplishment for one person over so many years. By comparison, Boston's reknowned Handel and Haydn Society has passed its 100th annual Messiah . Yes, Messiah 's message rings true each year, and only those who experience it superficially become bored with it. There are those!
There may be a few seats left at First Baptist Church, if you want to try to hear four wonderful solo voices with this outstanding choir Sunday afternoon, December 22, at 3:00 p.m., although those who picked up tickets in advance get first dibs.
I have mentioned Radomski and Morrow. The tenor is Timothy Sparks, whose delightful "Every Valley" was memorable. His dramatic rendering of "Thy rebuke hath broken his heart... neither found he any to comfort him" was a heartfelt moment of the performance. I tend not to enjoy ornamentation unless it is uniquely appealing, so suffice it to say that when he deviated from the straight text a few times it did not seem necessary or delightful to me. The program said that Sparks returns to UNC-Chapel Hill this year to teach a full studio of voice majors. Those students are indeed fortunate to be working with an artist of his stature.
Baritone John Blizzard is Artist-in-Residence at Wingate University. He performed his solos adequately, but I most enjoyed "The People Who Walked in Darkness," as he approached it with great feeling. He has been on the Wingate faculty for fifteen years, and many of his students have achieved success in state and regional competitions. He should be pleased that one of them, Anthony Dean Griffey, is on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera.
The orchestra, numbering 19, close to Handel's original instrumentation level, played admirably throughout. Many of the instrumentalists are outstanding music students, home from various colleges. Others are community professional regulars who can always be called upon for special occasions such as this. Chris Dunn, Executive Director of the Arts Council of Moore County, for instance, did a super job on trumpet to complement John Blizzard's performance of "The Trumpet Shall Sound."
An insert enclosed in the handsome, oversized program for the Southern Pines Messiah contained three pages of notes, not always furnished with this oratorio since it appears to be so well known. The program notes are credited to Tom Allen. The fourth page of the insert furnished bios of the performers.
On December 22, I returned to hear the Southern Pines First Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir Messiah again, and it was as if the previous night had been a dress rehearsal. The 4 o'clock performance on the 22nd was nearly perfect to this listener without a score. The orchestra was completely adequate, the thin sound had been strengthened since yesterday, or it could be because I had a central seat this time. All of the soloists showed new artistry, especially Timothy Sparks with two gorgeous ornaments, one at the beginning of "Comfort Ye," and the other at the end of "Every Valley." Radomski's ornaments were pleasing, as well. John Blizzard came through strong and clear except for what seemed to be brief pitch trouble while "shaking" the heavens... and the dry land. That is a very difficult part of the work to make attractive. And Susan Morrow of the Campbell University community repeated her fine performance. Only in the "Amen Chorus," at the end, was there a brief thin sound from the men's part of the chorus, but they quickly recouped. It was a very rewarding experience. Southern Pines is fortunate to have Benny Edwards as one of a number of fine conductors.