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Saturday, 08 December 2012 16:23

Concert review: A beautifully Baroque 'Messiah' with the St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall, Friday through Sunday, December 7-9

Concert review: A beautifully Baroque 'Messiah' with the St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall, Friday through Sunday, December 7-9 artreachstcroix.org / Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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When a performance of Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” includes a countertenor among the soloists and a theorbo (a giant-sized lute with open bass strings for a fuller sound) in the orchestra, you’d be justified in expecting the results to be heavily influenced by what we now know about Baroque performance practices. And with Christopher Warren-Green’s “Messiah” at Powell Hall this weekend, you’d be right—most of the time, anyway.

This “Messiah” featured crisp vocal and instrumental articulation and generally brisk tempi. When Mr. Warren-Green departed from that approach—as he sometimes did in slower numbers—the results were mixed, at least for me. “He was despised,” for example, was powerful stuff, partly because of countertenor Christopher Ainslie’s dramatic delivery, but it was the proverbial exception that proved the rule.

Still, this was a very engaging “Messiah” overall, with an especially dramatic Part 1. To begin with, the orchestral playing was beyond reproach. From those high-flying trumpet parts (played expertly by Tom Drake on what looked like a piccolo trumpet and Carrie Schafer on a standard instrument) to the basso continuo skillfully provided by harpsichordist Maryse Carlin, organist Vera Parkin, and (imported from Southeast Missouri State) Jeff Noonan on theorbo, everything sounded splendid. You can’t have anything less than accomplished work in these small ensembles (around 40 players in this case), and accomplished playing was what we got Friday night.

The soloists were a nicely balanced group as well, both in terms of voice types and of performance styles. Tenor Daniel Montenegro and bass Matthew Treviño tended to be more overtly dramatic, for example, while Christopher Ainslie and soprano Tamara Wilson were somewhat more restrained. Mr. Ainslie, in particular, seemed to favor a more minimalist approach right up until “He was despised,” which made his highly charged reading of that solo all the more striking. He also seemed to refer to his score less than anyone else, suggesting deep familiarity with the music.

Speaking of Mr. Ainslie, I suspect the choice of a countertenor for the alto role raised a few eyebrows among the audience, but there’s historical precedent for it. Castrati, while on the decline, were still around in the late 18th century, and Handel employed a male alto for “Messiah” performances in 1750. The countertenor voice sounds less “full” than the alto, of course, but I thought Mr. Ainslie made an awfully good case for it.

Last, but certainly not least, Amy Kaiser’s chorus members were in their usual fine form. Elocution on the part of the choristers was also excellent, making the printed libretto almost irrelevant, and the choral-orchestral balance was perfect, at least from our seats in the fourth row of the dress circle. That’s impressive, given that there were around 80 singers up there.

I’m a bit unclear on exactly what set of historical accidents turned “Messiah” into a Christmas tradition here in the USA. The piece had its first performance on April 13th in Dublin, and its London premiere a year later, so it certainly didn’t start that way. And the bulk of the Bible verses that Handel’s friend and collaborator Charles Jennens took as his text are concerned with Christ’s persecution, resurrection, and predicted second coming rather than his birth, so the whole thing is really more appropriate for Easter.

But traditional it is, and this year’s “Messiah” is well worth seeing and hearing—assuming you can still get tickets. Sunday’s performance is now SRO, but there may still be some tickets left for Saturday night. If not, the Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 FM.

Next on the calendar: Holiday concerts continue with “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, featuring Circus Flora and the orchestra under the baton of Alastair Willis. Performances are Friday through Sunday, December 14-16. For ticket information: stlsymphony.org

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