PBO Gives Messiah Full Glory

Anna Carol Dudley on December 6, 2010

Advent has begun; Christmas is coming. And choruses are singing George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s performance Saturday, at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, was a triumph. Music Director Nicholas McGegan’s pacing, from the very beginning, connected recitative to aria to chorus in a grand narrative sweep. The chorus and orchestra sang and played as one instrument.

Philharmonia Baroque

Bruce Lamott’s Philharmonia Chorale was in top form. Magic moments included the alternation of soft unaccompanied singing and full-bodied sound with orchestra, in “Since by man came death” ... the insidious “iniquity” in “All we like sheep” ... the question-and-answer dialog of “Lift up your heads” ... the impressive bass section, skilled in fast passagework while giving out robust sound, in “And he shall purify” ... the alto and tenor sections, eloquently shaping the harmonic structure of “Surely he hath borne our griefs” ... the sopranos moving up and up in the Hallelujah chorus.

Among the soloists, baritone Tyler Duncan was a standout. He held his score, but rarely looked at it. His every utterance was electrifying — a direct, expressive unleashing of a powerful voice. “The people that walked in darkness indeed saw 'a great light.' 'Behold I tell you a mystery,' sent chills down the spine of the hearer." Trumpeter John Thiessen rose magnificently to the occasion, joining Duncan for “The trumpet shall sound.” McGegan allowed Duncan to sing the often-cut B section of this aria about corruptibility and immortality, so that when he returned to the beginning, repeating the riveting news that “we shall all be changed,” we heard it in a different way. If ever a Messiah aria deserved applause, this was it.

Soprano Mary Wilson was a close second in terms of mastery of the score. Her telling of the Nativity story was a model of recitative singing, and she dispatched “Rejoice” at an amazingly fast tempo. She has a gift for expressive ornamentation, used beautifully in “How beautiful are the feet,” if perhaps a bit too much in “Come unto Him,” which kept slowing — a common problem when singers linger on eighth notes (or ornaments) and lose track of the dance structure. McGegan kept getting the orchestra back on the beat in instrumental sections, but an uncomfortable tug of war was going on.

First Sometimes Best

Wilson ended strongly with her two big arias in Part 3, “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and “If God be for us.” As a soprano myself, I have tried all the alterations of phrasing she made in “Redeemer” and have mostly come back to Handel’s original.

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The alto and tenor soloists appeared to have come more recently to Messiah. Countertenor Daniel Taylor, who sang the alto solos, depended heavily on his score, and has some problems with breathing technique. He sometimes evinced a superficial relationship to the words he was singing, except for his performance of “He was despised,” which he felt deeply. His lowest notes could have used a bit of baritone; the word grief was sometimes barely audible.

Tenor John McVeigh also had technical problems: a tense jaw and some intonation slips. But he gave a spirited account of “Every valley” and “Thou shalt break them,” and sang expressively the four alternating recitatives and airs in Part 2, beginning with “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart.”

Messiah came to a blazing end with the final Amen, started by the splendid bass section and building up with each moment of glory — tenors, altos, sopranos — into a marvelous whole. The sold-out audience responded with an extended standing ovation.