Saturday, December 14, 2013

Encore Vocal Arts and host church choir present "Messiah" with Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church

It's not the season for "Messiah" that George Frideric Handel knew, but well before his death 18 years after he dashed off the oratorio in 24 days, the composer already had the satisfaction of knowing the work had become an institution in English musical life.

Well-received even in America before the Revolution that separated the colonies from the composition's country of origin, "Messiah" quickly became institutionalized in musical life here as well. And its loyal American public is responsible for finding Christmastime more appropriate for its annual performance, though the 1742 premiere established the initial pattern of Eastertide presentation.

So the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra entered the local "Messiah" lists once again Friday night, presenting the first of two performances this weekend at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church. Kirk Trevor, soon-to-retire music director of the ICO, led the performance, with Encore Vocal Arts supplemented by choristers from the host church, plus four guest soloists.

Friday's performance was well-knit, powerful, vigorously paced and radiant. True, from the Overture (Sinfonia) on, insufficient variety of dynamics deprived the oratorio of some of its expressive force. Not until the accompanied recitative of "For behold, darkness shall cover the earth" was a significant shift in dynamics evident, as bass soloist Alan Dunbar sang the words "but the Lord shall arise upon thee" and the orchestra suitably conveyed the text's mystery and anticipation. "His yoke is easy, and His burden is light" ended Part I with a somewhat reduced level of choral sound, but the same all the way through that number..

I admired Trevor's reduction of choral forces in "Lift up your heads" to emphasize the antiphonal effect of question and answer. And he directed the sudden lowering of volume on the words "The Kingdom of this world is become" in the magnificent "Hallelujah" chorus. Also welcome was the soft beginning of "Since by man came death" and the soft opening of the concluding "Amen" fugue. Though conventional, such touches confirmed that Trevor was not indifferent to the importance of dynamic contrast; there just could have been more of it.

Kirk Trevor conducted Friday's performance
The chorus of about 60 (Encore Vocal Arts is directed by Gregory Ristow, who will conduct Sunday's performance) seemed generally well-prepared.  Its "calling card," "And the glory of the Lord," was  admirably balanced. "Their sound is gone out" was exemplary in terms of both expression and phrasing. And, after the long haul, the choir had something impressive in reserve to lend to the concluding "Worthy is the Lamb" and "Amen."

Choruses with challenging divisions (one syllable over many notes) presented some problems. In "For unto us a Child is born," I saw more than a few jaws wobbling on "born"; the tricky business of articulating a fast-moving line on the same sound without chopping it up was not quite managed there or in the "-fy" of "And he shall purify."

The ICO was in fine fettle, for the most part.  Trumpets in the rear gallery of "Glory to God" made a stirring impression. Closer in for "Hallelujah," they were borderline overbearing. The solo trumpet obbligato in "The trumpet shall sound" was nearly immaculate. The essential orchestral sound is strings, undergirded by oboe and bassoon; they did a beautiful job with the tricky accompaniment to the work's final aria, "If God be for us."

Special kudos should be directed to harpsichordist Thomas Gerber. So much of the detail that animates the score was in his hands, and his deftness and imagination helped hold everything together. I will single out only two special places: The way he placed the rolled chords in the accompaniment to "Thy rebuke hath broken his heart" perfectly complemented the pathos of the tenor soloist, and in another recitative, "Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened," at the words "Then shall the lame man leap as an hart," darned if the harpsichord didn't get as frisky as a deer in the wild.

That leads to consideration of the solo quartet. The guest artists showed full command of their roles, projecting the words clearly and ornamenting tastefully (though tenor Derek Chester nearly ran off the rails at one point in "Every valley"). The genius of Handel, so well practiced in creating characters for the opera stage, made the recitatives and arias in "Messiah" personal — even though this oratorio differs from the composer's other English oratorios in not presenting named characters. Though the choruses are more essential to this genre than the solos, both types of writing in "Messiah" embody the difficult theological concept of a personal yet universal God and the divine-human bond that Handel and his librettist, Charles Jennens, found fully confirmed in Scripture.

This trait allows the soloists to differ in style somewhat without being jarring. The contrast was particularly profound between the two women:  mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westra presented an attractive declamatory approach, with each recitative and aria direct in expression, though never bland or formulaic.  Her "He was despised" was remarkable for being impassioned but never lugubrious.  Soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge displayed a more operatic style, emotionally extroverted, yet always controlled: Her "Rejoice greatly"  bubbled over with happiness, her "How beautiful are the feet" conferred honor upon the gospel preachers, concluding with a deftly ornamented final phrase.  Chester conveyed the tenor part's wide range of expression, from the promise of "Comfort ye" to the violence of "Thou shalt break them."  Dunbar always phrased with mastery, particularly in the difficult middle section of "The trumpet shall sound," beginning with the words "For this corruptible."

It is certainly possible to hear this masterpiece too often, but with a performance as generally creditable as this one, its perpetual freshness and splendor are guaranteed.