As I entered the sanctuary of the Cathedral of Christ the King Saturday night for the Lexington Philharmonic’s annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah, a lady passing by recognized me and admonished, “You’d better say it was perfect!”
This got me to thinking how profoundly meaningful certain holiday observances are for people, to the degree that even before hearing a concert, a patron could already proclaim it to have been flawless. That is because for her, as for many, the comfort and meaning derived from the tradition far outweigh any actual aesthetic considerations. As such, this performance of Messiah could be counted a success before a single note was sounded.
So from my critical perspective, was it perfect? No, but it was excellent nevertheless. And the little fumbles here and there did not detract from either the seasonal or spiritual significance of the event.
Music director Scott Terrell conducted Messiah with poetic gestures and vigorous tempos, and the orchestra responded with a very musical performance. They achieved a rich, balanced instrumental blend, assimilating the woodwind, brass, and percussion sonorities organically into the predominantly string texture, and delineating dynamic contrasts clearly. The few ragged moments were noticeable because of the relatively sparse instrumentation, but these actually added to the immediacy and excitement of a live performance. When a critic calls out a mistake, of honest necessity, it does not necessarily follow that it constituted a flaw. This is art, not science.
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The soloists were superb. Soprano Esther Heideman possesses a beautiful bell-like upper extension in her creamy voice, and although the highest pitches sagged a bit in fleet passagework, her joyous artistry pervaded the cathedral. Even when she was not singing, her engaged stage presence radiated the sublimity of the music and its message.
Countertenor Ryan Belongie evinced a more stolid performing persona than one usually wants from the nurturing, compassionate utterances of the alto soloist, but his singing was fabulous. His voice was strong throughout its range, extremely accurate in music both fast and exciting, or warm and sustained.
Tenor Aaron Blake gave a superlative performance, both vocally and expressively. He brought a prophetic, authoritative air to his numbers, enhanced by the almost baritone-like luster of his voice. It was unusual, and most refreshing, to hear such a dark tenor voice in the part, rather than the reedier, lighter tenor that often sings this repertoire, yet still with pinpoint precision.
Likewise, David Williams rendered the bass solos with splendid vocalism and powerful communicative intensity. His robust, healthy sound infused the declamatory texts with dramatic life.
All the soloists supplied their familiar music with fresh ornamentation, decorations that singers are expected to interpolate into music of Handel’s era, further invigorating their contributions.
For any choral work, the voices should predominate over the accompanying body. This was not the case with the Lexington Chamber Chorale and the Lexington Philharmonic. Although the orchestra never really overpowered the choir, the balance of voices to instruments was dissatisfying. In order to achieve the light, nimble counterpoint, the Chorale often seemed to be crooning, which in turn caused some under-energized pitches and muffled diction. However, the group sang with a beautiful spirit and, despite these criticisms, certainly upheld the chorus’ role in Messiah with professionalism and dignity, if not distinction.
The efforts by all concerned to inform this beloved old warhorse of an oratorio with fresh artistic insights is appreciated, for that's the only way this annual observance of a musical tradition could impart true inspiration.