Before Thursday night, it already was obvious that there were big changes to the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra's annual performance of George Frideric Handel's Messiah.
It was in a new venue, the Cathedral of Christ the King, and the orchestra was all of 27 players, backed by the 37 voices of the Lexington Chamber Chorale instead of the 100-plus Lexington Singers.
But the biggest transformation came in the performance, in which Handel's classic oratorio went from a grandiose set of timeless tunes to a story.
In less than 90 minutes, maestro Scott Terrell and his collaborators, including a sterling quartet of vocal soloists, took us through the three distinct acts of Messiah: the prophecy of Christ, his birth and life, and his death and resurrection.
Not only did the scaled-down size of the orchestra and no-intermission format accent the drama of the piece, but the setting of the cathedral, where the presentation was delivered beneath a large crucifix, made the gist of the program hard to miss.
This is what Terrell, in his second season with the philharmonic, wanted to do with the work: make it closer to its original Baroque-era form, in which the dancing rhythms and nuances of the story could be illuminated.
At the downbeat Thursday, the clarity of the strings was striking. It was the first of many moments when aspects of the piece popped, including choral parts.
The soloists did, too, including commanding baritone Ryan Taylor, angelic mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck, soprano Angela Gilbert and tenor Javier Abreu, who brought the drama the way the high voices are supposed to. The solo of the night, though, belonged to trumpeter Joseph Van Fleet, whose performance in The Trumpet Shall Sound heralded a moment of majesty toward the conclusion of the performance.
Sometimes, there are a lot of those moments in a Messiah performance. But this version delivered other colors. For Unto Us a Child Is Born often comes across as a moment to bowl the audience over with vocal power. But here, in the voices of the chamber chorale, it was a more joyful piece, more the announcement of a child than the coronation of a king. They saved that for later.
In what easily had to be the biggest performance of the chamber chorale's existence, the group acquitted itself admirably, demonstrating solid technique and deep sensitivity to the text.
Terrell made a solid case for his vision with this production. His challenge will now be what to do next. Does this rendition, this location for Messiah, become the philharmonic's new tradition, or will he continue to keep this slot on the orchestra's schedule moving and fresh?
Questions like that and performances like this weekend's are making the Lexington Philharmonic a lot of fun to follow these days.