A college Messiah is always welcome, because of the freshness of the young voices.
A joyous freshness prevailed in the ECU Chorale and Symphony Orchestra's performance in Wright Auditorium. The program listed 98 singers plus four soloists and 33 orchestral players plus one un-credited keyboard player. Messiah performances have two histories, one the story of performance practice and musical understanding in 1740s England, when and where the composition first saw the light; the other a history of everything uninformed that has been done to the poor baby during the succeeding years. The ECU orchestra is about the size of Handel's (but of somewhat different composition); the chorus is five times larger; the succeeding-years history was strongly adhered to. In spite of its size, the ECU Chorale was never ponderous, always responsive and sprightly, occasionally too sprightly: there was a young tenor who jigged and jumped like a calypso man whenever he sang, but other than a few elbows in his neighbors' ribs, the rest of the group did not fall into his ways.
It is inevitable that this was a Messiah-lite performance, coming in at 75 minutes, even with too much dead air. Watkins Shaw's list of movements numbers 53. This performance was Numbers 1 through 21, plus No. 44. The music was hostage to Victorian concert hall ego and pomposity, with a dead-air pause honoring each soloist while each one made his or her way from the back of the orchestra to front center stage, and another pause while they retired. The soloists: John Kramar, bass; Perry Smith, tenor; Jami Rhodes, mezzo-soprano; and Rachel Copeland, soprano, are faculty at ECU.
The Sinfony got things off to a slow start, but pepped up greatly in the fugal section. Perry Smith, tenor, has a beautiful high range, delightful in "Ev'ry Valley." He has an interesting technique for some of the ad-lib phrases; he uses long-held notes (the fermatas are visible, floating in the air) instead of the more usual coloratura improvisations. "And the Glory" was the first of many opportunities to sample the vivacious timbre of young voices.
John Kramar, bass, has an excellent voice, well-employed for "Thus Saith The Lord." "But Who May Abide" was in the careful hands of Jami Rhodes. Although the A part was a little slow, the B part moved along at a good clip and the ad lib was very nice, very believable, with places approaching the style of torch singing.
Rhodes's "Oh Thou That Tellest" was beginning to lose some of the excessive vibrato that had been in her singing earlier; the dead-steady chorus in "Oh Thou" scored my high "Bravo! Rah, rah!" Kramar pushed "For Behold" along at a good singing tempo. The pure sweet college sopranos (and altos and tenors and basses) made "For Unto Us" a high point of the concert. Following this delight the Pifa sounded even more stodgy and ponderous. It's supposed to be shepherds a-dancing in the fields, not the Dead March in Saul.
"There Were Shepherds" nicely displayed Rachel Copeland's relatively young voice; if she will discontinue her heavy vibrato training her singing will be lovely. Her diction was excellent; the recitative was greatly enhanced by the informed playing of John O'Brien, harpsichord. Copeland got even better in "Rejoice," with an excellent coloratura ad lib (brava!).
Comparisons are odious (but inevitable) when one soloist follows on the heels of another. Jami Rhodes has a nice voice, but a very different voice, from Copeland. It is most unfair to Rhodes to hear her on the heels of Copeland. Copeland is not better, just very different. "He Shall Feed His Flock" made it clear that the strings, an excellent band, were beginning to sag after a lot of good playing; a brief tuning would have been kind to them and rewarded their excellent work.
"His Yoke Is Easy" was wonderful, with the chorus entering very full and clear, and the strings sneaking in (so to speak) quite softly. Wright Auditorium (my first time to experience it) is an excellent hall, unobtrusive, with clarity and presence.
Finally, the part of the concert some people were waiting for, "The Hallelujah Chorus." This was very fine, with good orchestral/chorus balance, and a brisk tempo. To stand, or not to stand? One man, down front, house right, poised himself as to spring, then thought better of it and eased himself back into his seat. Then a tsunami burst on the scene from house left, sweeping the crowd to its feet. The magnificence is at an end, and Christmas season has begun.
High praise goes to the young women and men of the ECU Chorale and the ECU Symphony Orchestra.