By R.M. Campbell
The performance of the “Messiah” during the Christmas season is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, traditions of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. There is nothing unusual in this commitment to Handel’s oratorio. It is a work of pure, seemingly inexhaustible, genius. Although the work was intended as a vehicle to celebrate Easter, it works very well during the holiday season. Moreover, it sells tickets. This weekend the symphony presented five performances at Benaroya Hall. The symphony’s attachment to the “Messiah” is not singular. All sorts of ensembles, if they can muster a small orchestra and chorus and a quartet of vocal soloists, present the piece in some form or another.
The symphony’s “Messiah” has usually been the largest in scale in the city. Over the years the orchestra has diminished in size to approximate the number typical of the 18th century. This year the orchestra was composed of about 20 strings plus a miscellany of winds and timpani. The Seattle Symphony Chorale, at more than 100, remains the same size. Who could tell these volunteers they could not sing the “Messiah,” because they were historically not accurate? Performances have varied in quality, and for awhile they were among the least inviting and avoided by connoisseurs. Slowly they have been upgraded not only musically and more in keeping with period practice.
That reached an apex this year, with Gary Thor Wedow on the podium. The guest conductor is well-known at Seattle Opera where he has conducted illuminating performances of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” and Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride.” His knowledge of the era is profound, and he has the means of providing a voice to that scholarship.
His tempos were sprightly in the spirit of the Baroque period, but not too much so as some conductors. He was not afraid of expressive slow movements although he did not always maintain adequate tension. There was balance throughout the performance: loud and soft, fast and slow. That gave a sense of architecture to the whole as well as organic development. One section led inevitably to the next.
With the considerable help of Joseph Crnko, associate SSO conductor for choral activities, who rehearsed the chorus, Wedow got first-class singing out of the chorale, which has improved remarkably over the past few years. There was clarity when there used to be sludge, transparency when needed and full-bodied double fortes. On occasion, the chorus was thrilling.
The small orchestra played forcefully and well. Special note to David Gordon, principal trumpet, for his solo in “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” a piece of depth and beauty provided the trumpet plays well, and Gordon did.
Soprano Lisa Saffer, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor John McVeigh and baritone Charles Robert Stephens were the soloists. They were generally excellent. Stephens was a last-minute substitute for Sanford Sylvan. Saffer has a pretty voice that she used to good effect. Cooke is a singer of genuine expression which reached its most profound moment in the aria “He Was Despised.” Wedow gave her space to make her point, and she did with acumen. Her singing was one of the highlights of the performance. McVeigh sang with aplomb as did Stephens.