Saturday, December 1, 2007

Review: 'Messiah'

Richmond Symphony & Symphony Chorus,
Erin Freeman conducting
Nov. 30, Second Baptist Church, Richmond

Erin Freeman, associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony, made her public debut as director of the Symphony Chorus in the first of two Christmas-season performances of Handel’s "Messiah." Although she was facing James Erb, the chorus’ founding director, now singing in the tenor section, she showed no hesitation in crafting her own choral sound and putting her own interpretative stamp on this all-too-familiar work.

Freeman, one of the younger protégés of the late Robert Shaw, audibly works from the old master’s template. She obtains assertive, rhythmically precise ensemble singing with focused intonation and unusually clear diction. In this performance, she exploited every opportunity to draw dynamic variety from the choristers – most strikingly, building a crescendo in the phrase "he was bruised for our iniquities," the second section of the chorus "Surely He hath borne our griefs."

That effect, and sharp contrasts in tempo, phrasing and dramatic effect in the number’s four sections, made this sequence, normally overshadowed by "Hallelujah," "For unto us a child is born," "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion" and "Worthy is the Lamb," the choral highlight of the performance.

Conducting an orchestra of mid-18th century scale – 21 strings and two oboes with continuo in most numbers – Freeman maintained better than usual balance between instruments and a relatively oversized chorus of about 80 voices. ("Messiah" choruses of Handel’s time were half this size or smaller.) String ensemble and articulation were unusually fine, cellos and double-basses unusually hefty.

Harpsichordist Jonathan Moyer – uncredited in the program book, despite having more notes to play than any other instrumentalist – gave stylish, at times richly atmospheric, support to recitatives. The lute tone he produced in "He was despised" was especially noteworthy. Organist Michael Simpson made the most of his elaborative cameo in the chorus "All we like sheep."

Freeman has selected 39 of the 54 numbers of "Messiah," restoring the chronically omitted chorus "The Lord gave the word" and the alto-tenor duet "O death, where is thy sting?" (This is the season's most generous sampling by a professional orchestra in Virginia. The Virginia Symphony of Norfolk and Roanoke Symphony are offering the so-called "Christmas portion," Part 1 plus the "Hallelujah" Chorus. Washington's National Symphony is staging a complete performance.)

Handel's solo vocal numbers pose special challenges. Many are highly theatrical, but they are not operatic arias. In modern librettos, they are called "airs;" early texts of the oratorio termed them "songs." Singers of Handel's time ornamented or elaborated on melodies, and especially on words or phrases – "shake," "crooked," "mountain and hill made low," "lift up thy voice" – that invite illustrative vocal effects.

Several generations of scholar-performers have labored to re-create the kind of voice and performance style appropriate for Handel, but that work is still in progress. European singers seem to have developed a more or less settled Handel style; that’s decidedly not the case in this country. (The Juilliard School recently engaged William Christie, the American-in-Paris guru of baroque vocalization, for its early music program. If anyone can sort things out, Christie can.)

Issues of baroque performance practice can be safely ignored by most concertgoers – that is, until they attend a performance of "Messiah" that aspires to a higher than church-choir standard, encounter soloists who aren't attuned to baroque ornamentation but feel obliged to give it a try, and hear the vocal equivalent of driving with bald tires on a slick road.

This year’s "Messiah" cast features one soloist, soprano Jennifer Ellis Kampani, who specializes in early music and has the straight tone, flexibility and rhythmic acuity to show for it; another, Sumner Thompson, who has sung enough baroque repertory to reconcile its demands with his soft-hued baritone; and two opera singers, mezzo-soprano Tracy Watson and Richmond-based tenor Tracey Welborn (a late substitute for Omar Crook, who pulled out of the first performance due to illness – no word yet on his status for the repeat). Their contributions varied predictably.

More than once, one could imagine Shaw saying: "Look, this isn’t working. Just sing the tune."

The Richmond Symphony's "Messiah" repeats at 8 p.m. Dec. 3 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $30. Details: (804) 788-1212,