Nicholas McGegan meets Apollo’s Fire in Ohio for Handel’s Messiah

United StatesUnited States Handel, Messiah: Erica Schuller (soprano), Daniel Moody (countertenor), Thomas Cooley (tenor), Hadleigh Adams (baritone), Apollo’s Singers, Apollo’s Fire / Nicholas McGegan (conductor), St. Bernard Catholic Church, Akron, Ohio, 8.12.2021. (MSJ)

Apollo’s Fire

Music lovers in northeast Ohio were treated to a grand occasion with this concert, the first time that renowned Baroque music specialist Nicholas McGegan has conducted Apollo’s Fire. He is already familiar to local audiences from numerous appearances as guest conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra, but this occasion was even more special. Apollo’s Fire has a commitment to the intense style of music like Handel’s Messiah that a modern instrument group can only approximate, and McGegan looked like he was having a grand time.

A key aspect of McGegan’s approach to the venerable oratorio was attention to the words. He pointed out in his program note that librettist Charles Jennens is too often forgotten. He was the one, after all, who came up with the whole concept of the piece, which is a startlingly modern one: the work is about a figure who is never directly portrayed or heard from in the entire work. Yet that very absence makes the oratorio stronger. McGegan put the emphasis on storytelling, both musically and verbally, and it sparked Messiah to life, the familiar parts just as much as the less famous sections. Indeed, the whole work emerged as one great arc.

McGegan was aided in this storytelling by an outstanding quartet of soloists. Baritone Hadleigh Adams took possession of the stage every time he stepped forth, and he had the vocal richness and presence to justify it. Thomas Cooley allied his big tenor voice to keen attention to the meaning of the words he sang. Daniel Moody, a frequent Apollo’s Fire guest, sent his countertenor soaring, infused with energy. Erica Schuller was colorful and caressing in the soprano solos.

The total ensemble was less than forty players and singers plus the soloists, which could potentially be lost in a cathedral acoustic, but the sound in St. Bernard’s is such that the full audience tempered the reverberation to just the right level. Voices and instrumental details could hang out in the air with a lovely shimmer, while the total ensemble sound remained airy and clear, even when McGegan had the strings digging in to emphasize the music’s ever-changing moods.

One can only hope that this first time with Apollo’s Fire won’t be McGegan’s last. That and his continued visits to the Cleveland Orchestra all but designate him as northeast Ohio’s principal guest conductor, and we’re grateful for it.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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