The Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra broke its own Christmas tradition this year. In Saturday night’s concert at the Cathedral of Christ the King, music director Scott Terrell offered snippets of Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria and George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, along with a few short semi-seasonal pieces, instead of the full-blown Messiah the orchestra has presented for decades.
While the change was very refreshing, the selections that remained from the familiar Baroque works could not really qualify even as extended highlights. The result was a bit of a hodge-podge, since neither oratorio could fulfill any kind of a narrative trajectory, and inevitably certain beloved passages in both works were eliminated, leaving behind a vague dissatisfaction at the programming choices.
Nevertheless, Terrell is to be commended for finally thinking outside the box regarding the Philharmonic’s holiday offering. He could go further with this. It was nice not to have to settle in for the sacrosanct ritual of THE Messiah, but rather to hear a real concert by our excellent orchestra.
The Philharmonic played beautifully indeed throughout the evening. The all-important strings were on point in the demanding, exposed music, especially cellist Benjamin Karp whose solid contributions displayed complete mastery of the Baroque style. Oboist David Powell played with sweet tone and gorgeous expression, especially in his pastoral solo in the Vivaldi. Similarly, trumpeter Joseph Van Fleet had many moments to shine, and did so in all of them.
The vocal soloists, soprano Sarah Tucker and tenor Ben Bliss, also gave high-quality performances, especially in the contemporary pieces. Bliss partnered with Van Fleet for a rapturous, contemplative Nunc Dimittis by Geoffrey Burgon, their respective timbres complementing the other’s perfectly. John Tavener’s Song of the Angel was stunningly realized by Tucker and violinist William Ronning, whose feather-soft trills sent shivers worthy of any heavenly host.
In the Baroque works, Tucker’s voice sounded a bit pressed, but her artistry was enjoyable. On the other hand, Bliss was truly superb, with a strong yet limpid tone, incisive yet tasteful interpretation, and dignified yet inviting stage presence.
The weak link of the evening’s performance was the Lexington Chamber Chorale. In recent years, they have achieved a certain level of accomplishment with Messiah, but in both the Vivaldi and Handel, their tuning was suspect and their diction was mushy at best. My concert-going companion, an accomplished musician from abroad, commented that she could not understand any of their words in Messiah and kept giving me side-long glances at their many ragged entrances, out of sync with the orchestra, despite Terrell’s clear cues.
The Chorale’s best work of the evening came in the ethereal Lux Aurumque by Eric Whitacre. Despite a false start after a wrong note from the pitch pipe, the Chorale performed this very difficult piece quite beautifully. It pains me to complain of the rest of their performance, because they do sing with a lovely enthusiastic spirit. Given their noticeable improvement in recent years, I’m sure this year’s lesser success is just a temporary setback. Chalk it up to the change in repertoire.
The Philharmonic also offered an orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. They played it so fast I joked to my companion that in Terrell’s rendition, Jesu jumpstarted man’s desiring. That’s how the whole concert felt to me, like a somewhat herky-jerky pursuit of sublimity.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay is a musicologist, pianist and voice coach at the University of Kentucky. He has just released a new album, ‘The Virtuosic Piano Arrangements of Tedrin Blair Lindsay.’