"Messiah" experiment on St. Patrick's Day promising

Posted: March 19, 2013

Handel's Messiah on St. Patrick's Day?

The idea wasn't really out of season Sunday at Irvine Auditorium: As Christmas-y as it is, Messiah also deals with Easter (March 31 this year), was performed in the so-called Dublin version, and, in any case, has great medicinal value all year long.

Also, Sunday's collaboration between Choral Arts Philadelphia and Tempesta di Mare (Philadelphia's authentic-instrument orchestra) promised something distinctive that shouldn't be lost in next season's crush of Christmas holiday concerts: There was no conductor.

Tempesta is used to that, but not Choral Arts, which adopted a more demure manner with low-vibrato singing that matched Tempesta's performance practice. The overall sound picture was beautifully blended - along with other pleasures that made this concert an experiment worth trying and a good beginning to what I hope will be future collaborations.

The musicians were arranged in a cozy cluster to facilitate the mutual listening that's essential to playing sans conductor. Double basses bookended the orchestra, with concertmaster Emlyn Nagai in full view to give entrance cues when necessary.

The chorus could have used risers for better projection in the many grand choruses but instead was kept near the ground - close to Choral Arts director Matthew Glandorf, who was in the center of the stage playing chamber organ and conducting some of the more rhythmically tricky passages.

Too bad he didn't conduct more. Though the chorus was always together, with balances allowing you to hear the music inside and out, the musical signposts in any given passage were hazy; with Glandorf conducting, the words became much more crisp and meaningful. So the ultimate problem with this Messiah was that the mechanism of the performance detracted from expressive elements - not greatly, but some.

This Messiah also had a problem typical of those on the Christmas treadmill: uneven soloists.

A longtime treasure among oratorio singers, bass William Sharp projected words and meaning with deep consideration and great coloristic precision. I've never heard his arias sung better. But soprano Ah Young Hong sang with an incomplete technique: Sustained notes and coloratura were good, but everything else was iffy.

Tenor Aaron Sheehan displayed a gleaming voice but chilly presence, while mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane delivered marvelously refined ornaments but lacked weight for such crucial arias as "He was despised."


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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