Christmas Music: Sparkling One Day, Less So the Next

United StatesUnited States Handel, Messiah: Amanda Forsythe (soprano), Magdalena Wór (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Stenson (tenor), Kevin Burdette (bass), Seattle Symphony Chorale, Seattle Symphony, Gary Thor Wedow (conductor and harpsichord), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 22.12.2013

A Festival of Lessons and Carols: Northwest Boychoir, Vocalpoint! Seattle, members of the Northwest Sinfonia, Joseph Crnko (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 23.12.2013 (BJ)

Joseph Crnko is a formidable powerhouse in the field of Seattle choral singing. His Seattle Symphony Chorale was in fine fettle for the orchestra’s annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah, and with Gary Thor Wedow a skilled and stylish presence on the podium and at the harpsichord, the performance was an almost unalloyed delight.

Starting with a neatly pointed account of the overture, the Seattle Symphony contributed zestful orchestral playing throughout, and the vocal solos too were persuasively delivered. It’s true that Amanda Forsythe might achieve a stronger effect in virtuoso numbers like “Rejoice greatly” if she kept her head still, but she has a lovely voice, and her singing of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” rose to a powerfully affecting level of eloquence and grace. Aside from one or two distracting hand gestures, and a breath taken between “refiner’s” and “fire” at the end of “But who may abide,” Magdalena Wór also sang beautifully, and I was sorry that, among a number of omissions, the cutting of the middle section and da capo in “He was despised” robbed her of the chance to demonstrate her abilities in the area of embellishment. For his part, Andrew Stenson left his opening recitative surprisingly bare of embellishment, but everything he did after that, including a poignant account of his group of solos in Part 2, impressed for warmth and solidity of tone, masterful technique, and exceptionally clear diction.

Just as impressive was the often thrilling singing of bass Kevin Burdette, who left no doubt of the operatic nature of Handel’s vocal writing. He too was shortchanged by the cutting of the middle section and dal segno in his last air, in which David Gordon’s Trumpet did indeed Sound to spectacular effect. (Gordon enjoyed himself by decorating his line with a spectacular variety of twiddles: they were beautifully executed, but I wonder—I confess I’m not sure about this—whether it is quite polite for the obbligato player to indulge in more embellishing than the singer is offering?) Other fine instrumental solos were provided by violinist Emma McGrath and cellist Roberta Downey, and Joseph Adam was his usual reliable self at the organ keyboards.

After such pleasures, I went to the Festival of Lessons and Carols the following day in the full expectation of being enchanted. In the event, the experience fell some way short of enchantment. Like the late Seán Deibler, the wonderful director of the Choral Arts Society that I was a member of in Philadelphia, Joseph Crnko proved in the course of these two days to be far more impressive as a chorus trainer than as a conductor.

Yes, there was much to enjoy in the fluent and polished singing of his choirs, interspersed with lessons sympathetically read by nine of his young choristers. Members of the Northwest Sinfonia, too, provided enthusiastic orchestral support, though I felt that the almost unrelievedly spangled scoring of the accompaniments grew a tad wearisome as the evening went on. And if the sound of the Northwest Boychoir seems clarinettish in contrast to the flute-like sonority of English equivalents like the choir of King’s College, Cambridge (on whose precedent such festivals of lessons and carols are based), the American-ness of the result is an entirely legitimate quality.

There were also one or two moments, including the dead syllables in such American pronunciations as “e-ter-nuh-ty” and “Beth-luh-hem,” that jarred on my British-born ears. But more serious than such perfectly understandable details was an overall lack of real communication between performers and audience—and this despite the fact that the latter obviously included many members related to the former.

Especially given the invitation in the program book for the audience “to sing along with the songs listed in bold,” it seemed almost perverse of Crnko to keep his back turned firmly towards us, and not to offer the slightest glance or gesture of encouragement, which might perhaps have helped those dutifully singing along to lift their intonation a bit closer to the pitch the choirs on stage were heroically sustaining. The performances, moreover, were disappointingly stiff in rhythm (and at one point actually inaccurate, when the smooth triplet figure at the repetition of “comfort and joy,” which gives “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” its one important touch of subtlety, was turned instead into a prosaic ti-ti-tum figure of two sixteenth notes followed by an eighth note).

I continue to regard Joseph Crnko as an inestimable treasure for the way he has raised the level of the Seattle Symphony’s resident chorale, and presumably also of the other choirs he leads. It’s just that this hour on the podium was not his finest.

Bernard Jacobson