Columbia Pro Cantare had its annual go at George Frederick Handel's mega-oratorio Messiah on Saturday evening. A near-capacity crowd was on hand at Jim Rouse Theatre to marvel anew at the wonder of Handel's creation, and to cheer the local choir on as conductor Frances Motyca Dawson and her singers dutifully brought mankind's best loved choral work to life during another Christmas season.
These concerts offer much to enjoy. The singers have not forgotten the piece since last year (or the year before that), Pro Cantare engages some of the region's finest players for its orchestra and Motyca Dawson's soloists are always easy on the ear.
So, for the record, let's describe Pro Cantare's 2004 Messiah as an amiable affair that chugged along comfortably with most technical matters well in hand, save for some lagging by the tenors in the hyperactive "All We Like Sheep," muddy consonants from one and all in "And He Shall Purify," and a bad slip by baritone Lester Lynch (normally the most reliable of singers) in "For He Is Like a Refiner's Fire."
As for the details, let's divide my reactions into things I really liked and things I'd really like to hear in future Pro Cantare performances of Messiah.
Most admirable are the snappy tempos favored by this conductor. Each and every Christmas, we are awash in stately, pompous performances of Messiah that can't dance a lick, and that is assuredly not the case in Columbia. Motyca Dawson is not afraid to hoof it in choruses such as "And the Glory of the Lord" or the Easter Portion's "Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs" and that's all to the good. The baroque idiom, after all, is keyed to the dance, and the flair for movement is never far off when the Pro Cantare folks are having at it.
It is also a pleasure to encounter a Messiah in which the solos are rendered so effectively.
Mezzo Rosa Maria Pascarella delivers "O Thou that tellest good tidings to Zion" with irresistible joie de vivre.
Soprano Amy Van Roekel is aptly cast as the angel in the "Shepherds abiding in the fields" sequence, which she caps beautifully with a spritely dash through the "Rejoice Greatly" minefield. She also contributes a deeply felt "I Know that My Redeemer Liveth" at the beginning of Part III.
Lynch's best moments came in a hearty "Trumpet Shall Sound," that included a snappy trumpet obbligato from Susan Rider, while Metropolitan Opera tenor Mark Schowalter was dramatic and quite touching in the emotional set of arias and recitatives Handel dished up for him in the Easter Portion.
If I can put in an early order for next year, though, it would be for a wider dramatic range from the choir. Granted, most nuances of choral volume are going to be slapped down by the execrable acoustics of the hall but, I'd love to hear the emotions churn more.
Handel was a genius of the musical stage, as well as a great composer. Thus can Messiah's longevity be traced not only to the beauty of its music but to the tale it tells with such a gripping flair for the dramatic. More, Pro Cantare, more!