Messiah plays to sold-out houses

By R. M. Campbell

The Seattle Symphony Orchestra does a slew of concerts during the holiday season, appealing to a range of interests. Most of them are pretty easy on the brain and popular.

Themes come and go, but one remains a constant: Handel’s “Messiah.” It has been performed just about everywhere in the city — not to mention the world. At one time there seemed to be dozens of performances, all claiming one virtue or another. The number is much reduced now, but the symphony continues to present the proud profile of Handel’s piece in multiple performances. Of course, the great work should be performed at Easter: it concludes with the Resurrection of Christ, not his birth. But the tradition of “Messiah” at Christmas is a powerful one, and it is better to hear the oratorio at Christmas then not at all. The “Messiah” is not the only holiday offering among the performing arts, but it is the gravest. Tchaikovsky’s score for “The Nutcracker” is also a work of genius but of a quite different nature.

While Christmas has become increasingly secular, not to mention commercial, the “Messiah” remains inevitably Christian. That is its glory. In the more than 250 years since its premiere in Dublin, attitudes have changed — not toward the work itself but the manner in which to perform it. The solemn and weighty “Messiahs” of the past are long out-of-fashion. Even the most mainstream musical organizations bow to period concerns, including the Seattle Symphony. It was quick-tempered, with the orchestral forces substantially reduced: a mere twenty-two strings, if I counted correctly, and a handful of winds plus organ, harpsichord and timpani. The Seattle Symphony Chorale should, of course, also be smaller, but who is going to tell chorale members they can’t sing the “Messiah”?

The orchestra and chorale spent the weekend with Handel and his masterpiece at Benaroya Hall. The hall on Sunday was sold-out with an audience that was quiet when quiet was called for and enthusiastic at the end. Gerard Schwarz has conducted the work many many times, and his attitudes have been altered, especially his tempos. They are brighter how, quicker, sometimes simply fast. There was a day when the chorus would have been left behind but no longer. Rehearsed by its director Joseph Crnko, SSO associate conductor for choral activities, the chorus has rarely sound better or more focused. He divided the women — stage right — and men — stage left. There are differences now but there is also a handsome balance and a coherent sound. The chorus was a genuine pleasure to hear, even in fast-moving passages that were carefully articulated. .

In general, Schwarz presented a supple approach to the work, along with clean textures. He was sympathetic to the soloists and the chorus. The comparisons between the great drama of the piece and more introspective parts were clearly made. The orchestra was responsive to everything Schwarz wanted. The strings were in top condition and presented a cohesive and pleasant sound. Fast is fashionable and sometimes Schwarz bowed to fashion in which gravity and weight were sacrificed. For this series of performances, Schwarz did not stand on a podium; that was used by the soloists who were in the orchestra rather than up front.

The aria, “The Trumpet Shall Sound” for bass and solo trumpet, is one of the great moments of the work, provided the bass is strong and the trumpet is brilliant. David Gordon, SSO principal trumpet, is one of the most valued members of the orchestra week after week. None more so than in this celebrated aria. His sound was true and beautiful, his phrasing accurate and in all things, he was articulate. If I had been asked, I would requested the aria be repeated immediately.

There were four soloists: soprano Dominique Labelle, mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips, tenor Michael Colvin and bass-baritone Charles Robert Austin. Each had merit, especially Labelle who coupled a pristine sound and wonderful coloratura. Schwarz took the aria “Rejoice greatly” at great speed. With Labelle’s agile technique, the tempo held no fears for her, and her singing was often thrilling. Austin is well-known in Seattle, and his singing is always one of character and resonance.

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