From BSO, a `Messiah' with power

Music Review

December 15, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Since its premiere 262 years ago, Handel's Messiah has gone from an Easter piece to a predominantly Christmas one. Just about any number of singers and instrumentalists has had a go at the score, from the intimate scale the composer would have known to the gargantuan level the Victorians adored.

Preferences in tempos have gone from brisk to glacial and back to brisk. Tastes in solo vocal lines have gone from freely ornamented to only what's written and back to freely ornamented.

Conductor Edward Polochick has honed his distinctive approach to the piece over the years that combines some of the most effective - and most out-there - interpretive choices.

Polochick's version has been presented annually with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. It returned last night at the Meyerhoff to irresistible effect, with his disciplined and responsive Concert Artists of Baltimore Symphonic Chorale joining the orchestra, along with four unusually vivid soloists.

The performance produced a jolt early on, when concertmaster Jonathan Carney launched into a florid solo in the overture, and the expressive energy never slackened.

The conductor's preference for propulsion proved particularly ear-grabbing. A radar detector would have registered at least 120 in the traditionally 50-mph zones of "And He shall purify" and other choruses.

But clarity of articulation, or weightiness of texts, rarely suffered in the rush. Polochick was not entirely against repose, and when he did slow the speed, the contrast helped to underline the drama in the music.

The conductor got consistently shining work from his chorus, richly nuanced playing from the chamber-size contingent of BSO players.

The solo quartet offered a solid sampling of today's up-and-coming vocal artists. Eric Cutler's lower register tended to fade out, but the rest of the tenor's voice bloomed beautifully; his exquisite phrasing in "Comfort ye my people" was but one memorable example.

When it came to low notes, contralto Meredith Arwady had them to spare. Her descent into the depths at the end of "He was despised" made a striking effect. She added many other telling touches to her solos.

Soprano Carolyn Betty and bass-baritone David Pittsinger proved adept at ornamenting their lines, too (she wasn't above throwing in some Italian opera flourishes). Although both seemed to tire somewhat, their singing was as stylish and communicative as that of their colleagues.

In the end, this is as much Polochick's Messiah as Handel's. The individuality might be too much for some tastes, but I found myself as riveted to every measure as I was the first time I heard it a few years ago.

The 2 1/2 -hour performance seems to pass by in "the twinkling of an eye."

BSO

What: Handel's Messiah

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 7:30 tonight

Tickets: $22 to $44

Call: 410-783-8000 or visit www.baltimoresymphony. org

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