Friday, December 6, 2013

Review: 'Messiah'

Richmond Symphony
soloists, Richmond Symphony Chorus
Erin R. Freeman conducting
Dec. 6, Richmond CenterStage

This year’s Richmond Symphony performance of Handel’s “Messiah” was the closest to complete – omitting only five brief numbers in Part 2 – that I can recall. It was also one of the most dramatically charged in recent memory.

Erin R. Freeman, the orchestra’s choral director and outgoing associate conductor – she takes over the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus next season – obtained highly dynamic, truly theatrical treatments of many of the oratorio’s choruses, notably the sequence at the beginning of Part 2 that frames the alto air “He was despised,” and set markedly brisk tempos for many airs and choruses.

Aside from the soprano air “Rejoice greatly” in Part 1, which sounded rushed, speedy paces added fleetness to melodies, more emphatic expression to texts and greater contrast with the slower or more lyrical adjoining numbers.

The chorus “He trusted in God” and the bass air “Why do the nations so furiously rage,” both in Part 2, came across with real fury. The chorus “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,” in Part 1, which can sound rather ceremonial, here was a joyful outburst.

The chief beneficiary of the additional numbers was the Richmond-bred tenor William Ferguson, a regular in these Christmas-season performances, who in some years has played little more than a cameo role with just two airs and a recitative.

Ferguson sang and acted to especially potent effect in “All they that see Him” and “Behold and see if there be any sorrow,” the numbers framing “He trusted in God” in Part 2.

Soprano Michelle Areyzaga was in fine voice in “Come unto Him, all ye that labor” in Part 1 and “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” opening Part 3, and got a welcome additional showcase in “If God be for us,” the air preceding the final choral sequence, “Worthy is the Lamb”-“Amen.”

Mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen’s near-contralto was heard to best effect in “He was despised.”

Bass Sumner Thompson made aural and expressive feasts of his big numbers, “Why do the nations” and “The trumpet shall sound,” the latter a fine duet with trumpeter Rolla Durham.

The Richmond Symphony Chorus, its singers mixed rather than divided into sections, sang with energy, expressiveness and generally excellent diction, but with a few lapses in ensemble, mostly in attacks.

A chamber-scale orchestral contingent – 22 strings, two oboes, plus continuo of organ, harpsichord and bassoon, with two trumpets and timpani in “Hallelujah” and the final choruses – played stylishly and in good balance with the large chorus.

The rationale the symphony has given over the years for performing “Messiah” with substantial cuts has been that listeners would find the complete oratorio too long.

The large audience attending this performance showed none of the tell-tale signs of restlessness. Chances are, the roaring ovation at the end would not have been diminished if the five missing numbers, adding about 8 minutes, were performed as well.

Maybe next year.