Friday, December 11, 2015

Scintillating orchestra delivers the goods in “Messiah” concert

Guest review by Nan Knight Haemer

When I attended the Oregon Symphony’s “Messiah” on Saturday evening (December 5), I expected the usual holiday highlights: Messiah Light. But lo, they tackled the entire work, no mean feat of endurance: three hours of concentration and beautiful playing. That meant an elegant, nimble and trimmer orchestra and one intermission. The only cuts were two of the da capo arias that left off the repeats.

Handel’s “Messiah” is essentially a vocal work that showcases the chorus and the soloists. Their task is to declaim beautifully and/or passionately the Biblical texts. But I was wowed primarily by the beauty of the orchestra’s sound. I was swept away by their elegant, graceful, tight and expressive playing.

The Oregon Symphony simply outshone the chorus and the soloists. In the best of all possible worlds, you get an equal partnership. If the strings hadn’t been so amazing, the orchestral ensemble so lithe and responsive, the choices of articulation at times so unexpected as to make me look up, I would be speaking more of the vocals. They were not on the same level as the orchestra, however

The PSU Chamber Choir showed itself best on the a cappella section “Since By Man Came Death”. They had their best blend and balance in this bare section and also in the lesser performed choruses, such as “Great Was The Company” and “But Thanks” where their voices were the most unified and beautiful. The chorus warmed to their performance as it progressed, and I thought they sounded their best in general in Part 3. But their opening chorus felt like they were not quite ready.

The soprano section was lovely and shimmering throughout, though 1 or 2 more sopranos would have helped balance, especially in Part 1. The alto section was amazing: consistent, lovely tone quality and elegant execution throughout. Those qualities were missing in the tenor section. The fast passages of a zillion notes (melismatic singing for us geeks) were just not accurate or beautiful: when they didn’t sing very high, they sounded warm and unified, but above F-4 (F above middle C), it fell apart into individual voices, a spread, inelegant sound and quite pitchy. An addition of a professional or two in the tenor section could have helped even that out. The bass section was at times lovely, at times woofy and swallowed, but more solid than the tenors. The basses sounded great on the blistering “Let Us Break Their Bonds.”

The soloists likewise were uneven. Soprano Shannon Mercer was the most consistent sounding and wow, her fast runs in “Rejoice Greatly” were super. Mercer has a large voice, but she can move it. Her trills were excellent. Her decrescendo into the end of “sleep” on “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” was excellent.

The countertenor, Michael Maniaci has a lovely, light and high instrument. The Schnitzer seemed too large a hall for his voice. Because Handel’s alto solos in the “Messiah” are written lower and not for a high countertenor, they did not favor the sparkle and sweetness of his voice in a hall so large. He sounded his best, lovely and poignant on “He Was Despised”.

Tenor Thomas Cooley had amazing moments of sweetness, a heady light sound that he could crescendo and decrescendo with ease. He took some risks as you’d expect in a Baroque work with ornaments, especially in “Every Valley”. His messa di voce ending “All They That See Him” was just awesome. At times Cooley pumped up the volume for dramatic effect, as on his recitative “He That Dwelleth in Heaven,” but sometimes he went a little too far, losing the previous effortless accuracy.

David John Pike has a lovely baritone voice, which showed best in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” with outstanding trills and ornaments and a good ring in his voice in the first half but choppier in the da capo section. At the ends of his solos, he looked out at the audience, and I just wish he’d done that as he sang. He got buried a little bit on lower parts due to that.

The continuo ensemble as a whole played very sensitively, adjusting well for each soloist. The harpsichordist/organist, Douglas Schneider, had fun with some answering flourishes of his own to the soloists in various airs and recitatives. Principal bassoonist Carin Miller Packwood especially rocked on “His Yoke Is Easy”. Jeffrey Work, Principal Trumpet, and the orchestra sparkled in “The Trumpet Shall Sound”. The trills and turns of the strings accompanying the soprano solo on “If God Be For Us” were amazingly tight and facile, contrasting beautifully with the very tender continuo section.

Leading all of these musicians was Music Director Carlos Kalmar. He clearly shaped the phrasing successfully with the orchestra to shining clarity for three hours. There are a lot of transitions in 53 movements, requiring a clear design and plan for each by the conductor. You could tell that Kalmar’s orchestra had that clarity, even if you didn’t necessarily agree with his choice. I bought most of the choices. Interesting tempi variations or articulations of phrases in the orchestra were well thought out.

There were some real surprises. Most worked, like having “And He Shall Purify” and “His Yoke” moderately paced enough for the choir to make it sound easy. Most of the “fast” choral movements in Part 1 were more moderate, which helped the choir. There was a surprising slowing at the end of “Glory To God”. I’ve heard it with a decrescendo, but never a ritard as well! “Behold The Lamb” was not intense enough, perhaps due to the extreme choppy articulation that was required. The end of “Why Do The Nations” bass solo got softer and softer, I assume per Carlos’ choice? I missed more dramatic moments: “Surely” was a bit lacking in energy also.

I have to say the performance offered the weirdest and most peculiar “Hallelujah” chorus ever. Ever! It started so slow and soft, and it just played awkwardly. It seemed like Kalmar was trying to sneak them all in, hoping that the audience wouldn’t stand up. It didn’t work. The double dotting of “Worthy Is The Lamb” woke me up and the ending wind up was exciting. And having the soloists join the very end in the sprightly paced “Amen” was lovely. The tenor soloist started like he almost couldn’t help it and that was nice to see.
Nan Knight Haemer is a professional singer and voice teacher who has sung with numerous Portland organizations, including the Portland Baroque Orchestra, Trinity Consort, Pocket Opera, Portland Symphonic Choir, and the Bach Cantata Choir.

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