Sunday, December 06, 2015

Symphony Review: A resplendent "Messiah" with Bernard Labadie and soloists, December 3-6, 2015

Bernard Labadie
Photo: Francois Rivard
As I noted in one of my symphony preview posts a few days ago, it's far from clear exactly what set of historical accidents turned George Frederick Handel's 1741 oratorio "The Messiah" into a Christmas tradition here in the USA. But traditional it is, and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, under the direction of early music specialist Bernard Labadie, are observing it in fine style this weekend.

[Get more out of the music with my preview articles—part 1 and part 2]

Conducting without a score, a baton, or (for that matter) a podium, Mr. Labadie creates a luminous, bracing, and altogether splendid "Messiah". It's beautifully played, impeccably sung, and filled with small touches that allow Mr. Labadie to put his own unique stamp on the music without getting in the way of Handel's music. His "Hallelujah" chorus, for example, has subtle dynamic shadings that make this well-worn number feel almost brand new, and the slow diminuendo at the end of "We like sheep" was so striking and unexpected that it drew spontaneous applause on opening night. The final "Amen" was beautifully structured, building slowly and powerfully so that the final entrance by the sopranos felt like a ray of light suddenly bursting through the windows of his musical cathedral.

Allyson McHardy
So, yeah, magical moments all around.

"Messiah" is not the most theatrical of Handel's oratorios, but even so it works best when the soloists understand and convey often highly charged emotions in the text and the score. All four of this weekend's singers do that, with perhaps the most fully engaged performances coming from mezzo Allyson McHardy and, most impressively, from bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, who was a last-minute substitution for an ailing Philippe Sly.

Ms. McHardy, cutting a commanding figure in an emerald-green skirt and lacy black top, showed impressive power and variety. She's the imperious voice of doom in "But who may abide the day of His coming" and then the voice of hope in "O thou that tellest good tidings." Her role is written for an alto, but I thought Ms. McHardy had plenty of power in her low notes.

Kyle Ketelsen
Photo: Dario Acosta
Mr. Ketelsen was fully engaged with the text as well. His "The people that walked in darkness" was gripping, as was the dramatic "Why do the nations so furiously," a minor vocal glitch not withstanding. Like Ms. McHardy, he has a voice with a very solid low end, projecting easily into the hall.

Soprano Lydia Teuscher doesn't have much in the way of stage experience in her resume, but you'd never know it from the way she communicates the emotional core of her lyrics. Resplendent in a gold gown, she simply glowed in "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion" and in the recitatives leading up to the chorus's "Glory to God in the highest."

On the night we attended, tenor Jeremy Ovenden didn't have quite the vocal power of his fellow soloists, but he had all the flexibility and accuracy you could ask for in "Comfort ye, my people" and "Every valley shall be exalted." Those two numbers are the first vocal sounds we hear after the opening "Sinfonia" so it's vital that they make a strong impression, and he nailed them.

Lydia Teuscher
Amy Kaiser's chorus never fails to impress me with their fine vocal blend and accurate elocution, but I must say they are exceeding even their own high standards this time around. There was dramatic urgency in their "Surely He hath born our griefs" and real power in "He trusted in God that he would." Their "Glory to God in the highest" was sheer jubilation, amplified by the theatrical use of offstage trumpets in the dress circle.

The orchestra sounded at the top of their game as well, with fine work by the strings and flawless solos from Karin Bliznik and Jeff Strong on trumpets, among others. The continuo part was nicely realized by Maryse Carlin on harpsichord and Andrew Peters on positif organ (small portable organ that went out of fashion after the 18th century).

Jeremy Ovenden
I'm told that Mr. Labadie worked the orchestra and chorus particularly hard in rehearsals, making sure that they knew every nuance of his highly personal approach to the well-known music. That effort has paid off in a "Messiah" that respects Handel, but does so in a way that is all Mr. Labadie's own. I really can't recommend this performance highly enough.

The St. Louis Symphony's "Messiah" continues through Sunday, December 6th, at Powell Hall in Grand Center. Next weekend, the SLSO goes to the movies as David Robertson conducts a program of the music of John Williams December 11-13. For more information:

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