New Venue And More Subtlety For 'Messiah'

Posted: December 07, 1999

At midpoint in Messiah, Handel wrote three successive choruses that show not only his gifts as dramatist, but also test any chorus moving through this spacious oratorio. The Philadelphia Singers, in the first of their holiday performances Saturday, found in these sections the basis for some of the best singing of the evening.

David Hayes was leading the chamber choir and Concerto Soloists orchestra in a brisk and well-crafted reading, but when he began the second part, he and his singers moved up a level. They explored a dynamic range far greater than before, colored and shaded phrases in a way that heightened the dramatic message, and moved close to explaining why this music endures.

His 32 singers and orchestra of 19 developed a context in which thunder and whisper were a natural expressive range and in which the instruments spoke boldly as they completed the meaning of the biblical texts. It's not that good things weren't happening before, or wouldn't follow, but in those parts, the work and the performers came together in ways that only sometimes happen during any performing group's life.

The ensemble performed at the church of St. Luke and the Epiphany for the first time, after having spent years performing Messiah at the Academy of Music. The setting is better suited than the Academy to the ensemble's resources, and Hayes was able to find more eloquence and subtlety than had been possible in the bigger hall.

His soloists, too, were more effective because of the acoustical setting. The soloists, all chorus members, made their points with welcome differences in vocal power and timbre. Not all were able to mount convincing variations on the solo line, but their approach was knowledgeable and their singing forthright.

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