Naval Academy's 'Messiah' Was Just Fine, But Still . . . Annapolis Tradition's 44th Year Added Up To Less Than Sum Of Parts

December 07, 1990|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing writer

I'm familiar with the adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and I certainly wouldn't say that this year's Naval Academy performance of the Christmas portion of Handel's "Messiah" was broken.

In fact, these concerts -- now in their 44th year -- have become an indispensable part of Christmas in Annapolis, and understandingly so.

The wonderful Academy Chapel is as apt a setting for the vast expanse of George Frederick Handel's genius as one could imagine.

John Barry Tally is a talented conductor whose singers perform the choruses they know so well with a youthful exuberance that is most attractive.

Three of this year's soloists were as talented as you'd find onstage at the Kennedy Center, with a serviceable if not particularly distinguished tenor rounding out the foursome.

Members of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra were on hand to provide solid instrumental support.

But I can't shake the nagging feeling that, this year anyway, the musical whole was a bit less than the sum of the individual parts. I have a suspicion that these forces were capable of producing a "Messiah" of greater artistic stature than the one I heard last Saturday evening.

What was lacking, I think, was an integrated unitary conception of what the work is all about. It was a performance that seemed to rely more on what everybody happened to bring with them to the table than a cohesive, agreed-upon notion of the shape and dimension of this miraculous oratorio.

Things seemed to go in several different directions at once.

Many arias and choruses were taken at zippy, Baroque-inspired speeds. In fact, "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion" had the mezzo and chorus engaged in a flat-out sprint just to keep up. The chorus seemed a bit uncomfortable in "His Yoke Is Easy" as well.

Yet "And the Glory of the Lord" would have gladdened the heart of a Victorian Vocal Society doyenne, so deliberate was the tempo. Yes, this wonderful chorus can work at such a pace, but it seemed out of touch with the vigorous arias and choruses that surrounded it.

Talley carefully scaled down his complement of strings in numerous spots, admirably cultivating the transparency of the authentic Baroque style.

But the baritone soloist had to fight to be heard in his lower register in "The Trumpet Shall Sound" (at one point losing his place in the struggle), while the obtrusive chapel organ inappropriately dominated the overture and all but obliterated the singers in the concluding "Hallelujah."

The soprano, mezzo and baritone soloists embellished their recitatives and arias only a little, while the tenor caught everyone by surprise (including the conductor) when he ornamented "Every Valley Shall Be Exalted" within an inch of his life.

Admittedly, the Naval Academy is not the Julliard School. A military institution is not going to devote itself to the cause of music above all else. But with the considerable talent that is assembled annually for these performances, I'd like to have heard a more unified, consistent approach taken in this great, great work.

A dancing, ornamented, chamber-scaled "Messiah" can be sensational -- as can be the expansive, cast-of-thousands approach favored by the 19th-century British.

But the Naval Academy's 1990 version never quite seemed to settle in. If it had, a delightful seasonal event could have become a transcendent musical experience.

"My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them," Handel said after a "Messiah" performance. "I wished to make them better."

Footnote: The Naval Academy Women's Glee Club has become a delightful addition to the local music scene over the past few years. Under the direction of Jeanne Kelly, a noted singer in our area, these 65 young women have toured the country, featuring a repertoire that varies from classical and sacred music to patriotic songs and show tunes.

Wednesday evening's Christmas concert at the academy's Memorial Hall was a very pleasant one. The club's performance of Benjamin Britten's ubiquitous "Ceremony of Carols" was nicely executed. This is a magical score, and many moments were particularly beautiful: most notably "There Is No Rose," "As Dew in Aprille" and the harp interlude played gorgeously by Eileen Mason of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Only in the gymnastics of "Wocum Yole" did things get a bit muddy: More staccato punch would have been in order.

The women share with sopranos and altos the world over the tendency to lunge to high notes, and their Latin in the opening selections wasn't as alertly pronounced as it had been in the Britten. Otherwise, they were unpretentious, thoroughly musical soloists who sing beautifully.

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