Apollo’s Fire Offers a Bracing Messiah

United StatesUnited States Handel: Amanda Powell (soprano), Daniel Moody (countertenor), Ross Hauck (tenor), David McFerrin (baritone), Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrell (conductor), St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Akron, Ohio, 3.12.2018. (MSJ)

Handel – Messiah

It has become fashionable over the years to complain about yet another performance of Handel’s Messiah, particularly in the United States, where it has become a Christmas staple, even though only the first part of the oratorio refers to the nativity of Jesus Christ. The fact is often pointed out that Handel wrote many great oratorios, and it is hardly fair to the rest of his body of work to be totally eclipsed by Messiah. Last season, Apollo’s Fire demonstrated this with their glorious performances of Israel in Egypt.

But all it takes is insight to justify the most familiar material. The friend who attended this concert with me said, ‘How can I be hearing this for the first time, after hearing it over and over again for decades?’ She was stunned at the new life conductor Jeannette Sorrel brought, with the players’ remarkable commitment.

Sorrell’s approach declines to take the received knowledge about how this music should go, yet at the same time never sets out to iconoclastically shock. Rather, issues of tradition or radical change fall to the wayside as Sorrell and the musicians focus on living in the moment with Handel’s lively muse.

Part of their approach is sheer stage management — simply being aware of the oratorio’s theatrical nature. When tenor Ross Hauck stepped down from the platform to deliver a mellifluous ‘Comfort Ye’, he went to the edge of the stage, directly in front of the audience. In another spot, Sorrell had the chorus members leave the stage and envelop the audience in a radiant ring.

Non-vibrato playing and/or singing never appeared like a dogma, nor did anyone default to vibrato as an all-purpose substitute for true engagement. Instead, the results sounded as if the inked notes were still wet on the page. The score was closely considered, but ample room was left for idiomatic embellishment. In the ‘Pifa’, a few rustic grace notes gently punctuated the bass drone, with arpeggiated string chords dramatically anticipating big chords in key places.

Part of the effect is understanding the potential of the music. In high school I sang in a community choir doing Messiah and was mesmerized by the way Handel built the tension harmonically in ‘And He Shall Purify’. I have been waiting for thirty years for a conductor who also seemed to be aware of the awesome strength of that chorus, instead of skating over it to get to the next ‘greatest hit’. Finally, I heard it. Sorrell even took a slight ritard before scaling the mighty passage, as if to gather strength. Insights like this kept appearing on page after page. In the interest of dramatic focus, a few sections were omitted, including the wonderfully strange (though admittedly discursive) ‘The People That Walked in Darkness’, and the duet ‘O Death, Where is Thy Sting?’ but the flow justified the omissions.

Daniel Moody was a show-stopper with his extraordinarily full countertenor, particularly on the dramatically affecting ‘He was Despised’. Amanda Powell brought her customary bright gleam and powerful presence to her solos. Ross Hauck was alternately serenely airy and intensely dramatic. Baritone David McFerrin was direct and expressive, though perhaps a little challenged to ring out over the vigorous strings in ‘Why Do the Nations’.

The chorus, Apollo’s Singers, was vigorous and committed, with some glorious ringing high notes from the sopranos. The instrumental players were equally alive and compelling. Particular notice goes to Steve Marquardt’s elegantly perfect solos in ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’. The collected forces even pulled off the tricky feat of making the grand ending chorus actually sound like the cosmic summing up it is meant to be, instead of a tired trudge.

It will be interesting to compare this with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus performance of Messiah in a few days. Northeast Ohio’s two premier orchestral ensembles do not often program the same music in the same week, and it will be fascinating to note the differences.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

Mark Sebastian Jordan’s reviewing activity in 2018 has been supported by an individual excellence grant from the Ohio Arts Council.

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