The Lexington Singers, one of the community’s most venerated musical institutions, accomplished its annual traversal of Handel’s Messiah with distinction Friday night.
Led by music director Jefferson Johnson and featuring four fine soloists, this performance of the ubiquitous seasonal oratorio showed why the Singers’ Messiah is such a beloved regional tradition, despite several other productions of the work each year from which audiences may choose to attend.
The huge choir of almost 200 singers does not conform at all to the musical conventions of the Baroque period, which would have fielded a much smaller ensemble of just a few singers on each part. But the Lexington Singers sang with the textural clarity and rhythmic buoyancy of an expert early-music group.
Johnson’s clear, unfussy direction gave ample space for the music to breathe, while selecting perfect propulsive tempos for the more familiar choruses in the score. What is more, the Singers exemplified gorgeous vocal sonority while sacrificing neither rhythmic nor tonal precision, and pronounced every word with clear articulation and expressive intent.
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And yet, for all the musical excellence, what really set this group apart was its connection to the piece: They sang it like they really meant it, with a certain level of assurance bred from years of familiarity with the text, both verbal and musical.
This was the best choral rendition of Messiah I have heard yet in Lexington.
The soloists enhanced the sense of trying to make this often hackneyed work come alive in fresh ways to the audience. Tenor Gregory Turay employed exquisite diction and interpolated exciting dramatic ornamentation in his efforts to do something new with Comfort Ye/Every Valley, and if his soft high notes early on wavered a bit from lack of breath support, he more than made up for it with the fiery aggression of Thou Shalt Break Them. Turay’s stentorian performance contrasted effectively with bass-baritone Daniel Koehn’s more philosophical air. Koehn’s deep voice is a beautiful instrument with a rich vibrato, which sometimes obfuscated the notes in the rapid passagework of his solos, but the profound meaning of the words was never lost in his dignified delivery.
Contralto La’Shelle Allen was the most musically consistent and emotionally engaging of the four soloists, matching the chorus for full warm sound and note-by-note precision. She encompassed the whole audience with the immediacy of her persona, shedding the stiffness of regular oratorio “stand and deliver” manner for a more intimate, personal connection rooted in eye contact. Her joyful engagement with seemingly each member of the audience during her luscious musical delivery of O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion was so palpable it brought tears to my eyes, a sublime communal experience of art.
Similarly, soprano Rebecca Farley brought radiant vocalism and a beaming smile to her numbers, with some interpolated high notes of stunning beauty. She communicated the Christmas story with intention and issued the invitation Come Unto Him with conviction and limpid loveliness.
The orchestra, composed ad hoc of the best regional musicians, played well, although after so many Messiahs under so many different conductors, it is not surprising that there should have been moments when tempos or interpretive choices did not exactly align. (In one instance, Johnson and the orchestra surged ahead when Turay clearly wanted to stretch a phrase.) Nevertheless, they performed at a professional level, led with distinction by Jay Flippin’s eloquent work at the harpsichord, and featuring Jason Dovel’s elegant, understated trumpet solo in The Trumpet Shall Sound.
Of all the annual Central Kentucky Messiahs, this oversized version by the Lexington Singers offers the most consistent quality, musically and spiritually. It’s a delightful tradition.