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NMSO concert review: Handel, ``Messiah,'' Dec. 13, 2002

The article below appeared in the Albuquerque Tribune.

NMSO's Messiah has purity, power and grace

by Michael Kelly

They all stood up.

After more than 200 years and countless thousands of performances, audiences at Messiah still rise in unison when they hear the opening notes of the Hallelujah chorus.

The audience at Popejoy Hall on Friday night followed the tradition, and it's a tradition worth preserving. It's a reminder that one of the most powerful figures in the 18th century bolted to his feet in astonishment upon hearing for the first time George Friedrich Handel's celebration of the savior's birth.

It's a reminder, too, that Messiah's power to move the spirits of listeners has lost none of its force despite being one of the most frequently performed works in the orchestral repertoire.

Roger Melone's reading of the work Friday night with a distilled version of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and Chorus was pure Baroque, with the musical forces being a chamber orchestra made up almost entirely of strings and a small but potent chorus of 36 voices, with four soloists.

Melone even adopted the baroque practice of conducting while seated at a clavier, playing continuo and directing simultaneously, something Handel himself might have done. The final touch was engaging countertenor P. Foster Sommerlad to serve in the solo position more commonly occupied these days by an alto.

There is also hardly any question that the chamber orchestra and small choir, Handel's original arrangement for the work, are the ideal forces for presenting Messiah, allowing grace notes and embellishments to ring clearly.

The orchestra Friday night was not playing period instruments but did use the Baroque bowing technique, which creates the impression of a soft and indirect attack on the score. The surge and swell of the method seems initially peculiar and quaint, and after an hour or so it was difficult to escape the impression that the entire orchestra was trying to take each pitch by ambush. But blended with the same technique in the chorus, the reward came with many moments of hair-raising musical purity.

It was the very purity of Melone's approach to the work that drove the success of this Messiah. The performance was forceful and eloquent without resorting to mere volume.

Melone's command of tempo and close attention to dynamic balance throughout gave the reading polish without diminishing its elemental power to move the listener at a profound level.

The soloists matched the performance concept to the letter. Soprano Patti Spain projected a warm and unaffected voice with an unpretentious stage presence that showcased the music rather than the performance. Sommerlad presented his sections as though he took delight in delivering the message, and tenor Karl Dent, in airs that included “Every valley,” sang with a sense of wonder, as if the deity was whispering the lines in his ear for the first time.

Bass David Grogan had all the range and power required of the part, sounding like the voice of doom in “The people that walked in darkness” and the light of revelation in “The trumpet shall sound.”

But it was the chorus, interspersed with one another rather than divided into sections, that stole the spotlight. In a small choir there is no place to hide, and in this performance it was nearly possible at times to distinguish the individual voices, conveying an impression of intimacy and power.

It was a further reminder that the human voice is often the divine instrument of choice.

Next: NMSO concert review: Beethoven Ninth, Sep. 20, 2002
See also: New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Chorus: schedule and reviews, 1995–2011
Previous: NMSO concert review: Berlioz, ``Damnation of Faust,'' March 21, 2003
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Last updated: 2009/12/22 01:07:31