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ASO review: Orchestra, chorus deliver with rousing performance of Handel’s “Messiah”

Norman MacKenzie conducted the ASO's Handel's "Messiah." (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
Norman MacKenzie conducted the ASO's Handel's "Messiah." (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
Norman MacKenzie conducted the ASO performance of Handel's "Messiah." (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

On Thursday evening in Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus performed the “Gloria” from J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor and the Christmas portion of G.F. Handel’s oratorio “Messiah.” Guest vocal soloists were soprano Jacqueline Echols, mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor, tenor Richard Clement and bass Gerard Sundberg. Norman MacKenzie, the ASO’s director of choruses, conducted.

Part I, also known as the “Christmas portion” of Handel’s “Messiah,” has long been a ubiquitous if not near-obligatory performance in the Anglo-American choral music community during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In some years, the number of performances becomes nearly mind-numbing.

The Atlanta Symphony forces mount a “Messiah” annually, each time pairing it with a different piece for the concert’s first half. In 2010 it was Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” in 2011 Bach’s “Magnificat.” This year it was the “Gloria” from Bach’s Mass in B minor.

Both “Gloria” and “Messiah” utilized the four vocal soloists, but Bach’s “Gloria” included prominent solo instrumental parts paired with vocalists — O’Connor with associate concertmaster William Pu in the “Laudamus te” and with principal oboist Elizabeth Koch Tiscone playing oboe d’amore in “Qui sedes ad dexteram patris”; Echols and Clement in trio with principal flute Christina Smith; and Sundberg with associate principal horn Susan Welty in “Quoniam tu solus sanctus.”

Each of them did well. My only wish would be that, like Pu, the other instrumental soloists could have come up front to stand with the vocalists. But remaining at the back of the orchestra is a simple matter of logistical pragmatism, avoiding complications of getting people from here to there on a crowded stage. It was easier for the vocalists, who were seated to one side, to simply cross the empty front of the stage to find their mark.

The balance of the performance, five of the total nine movements, featured chorus with the orchestra. But, alas, the choral movements didn’t fare as well as those of the upcoming “Messiah.” For example, the initial choral entrance, of altos followed by tenors (bars 25-28), was difficult to hear, almost buried. The full 63-voice chorus could be reasonably heard upon entering at bar 29. Even the “Gratias agimus tibi,” the music of which is essentially the same as the more frequently heard “Dona nobis pacem” from the end of the complete Mass, was well sung but didn’t seem to fully bloom. The exception was the concluding “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” where the chorus seemed to finally come out most confidently into the daylight.

“Messiah,” the calling-card piece and the reason most of the audience was there, was a different matter. Both chorus and vocal soloists shone best in it, well underpinned by the smallish orchestral forces required for the concert. The musicians took a satisfying middle path of Baroque stylistic sentiments played on modern instruments, without getting too hysterical about the former, as evidenced in the opening “Sinfonia.”

Upon his entrance with “Comfort ye my people,” tenor Clement immediately became more audibly engaged and expressive, a first sign that this second half of the concert was going to be a few steps up from the first. Sundberg was solid without being overbearing in his solos, O’Connor warmly expressive and articulate, and Echols both lyrical and remarkably agile, as demonstrated in “Rejoice greatly.” The chorus also stepped up to the occasion across the board, more energized and confidently “present” than in the first half.

The concert ended with the “Hallelujah!” chorus from Part II, typically appended to Part 1 when performed outside of the entire oratorio. It was, of course, what the crowd was waiting for. The audience stood as it began, in the time-honored if apocryphal tradition. And a standing audience assures a standing ovation, in this case a quite hearty one that would have happened anyway.

The final performance will take place tonight at 8 in Symphony Hall.

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