Streamlined `Messiah' for Handel Choir

December 17, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In the midst of the Great Depression, an amateur choral society was founded to give Baltimore's cultural life a boost. The group is still commited to the community.

On Sunday, the Handel Choir of Baltimore marks its 70th year with a new artistic director and a renewed effort to make a difference on the music scene.

"The Handel Choir has a pride and tradition," says Melinda O'Neal, chosen late last season to succeed longtime director T. Herbert Dimmock III.

O'Neal has been a music professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and led the school's Handel Society for 25 years.

"The people in the Handel Choir office and on the board of directors are phenomenally devoted to this organization," O'Neal says.

In recent years, the chorus has varied in technical polish. The financial picture has been uneven, too.

"When I was being interviewed for the job, the board was very frank with me about the fiscal situation the group was in," O'Neal says.

While the board concentrates on shoring up the budget, O'Neal has focused on rebuilding the ensemble's musical assets. She started by asking all singers on the roster to re-audition. The chorus, which had been up to about 70 voices, is now around 40-strong.

"There were too many women," O'Neal says. "I wanted to restore the balance between men's and women's voices, whatever size group would result."

One advantage of having a streamlined Handel Choir this year is that it will fit neatly with O'Neal's approach to the ensemble's annual holiday presentation of the best-known work by its namesake. Handel's Messiah originally was performed by a small chorus, not the masses of singers that became the fashion.

Although the Handel Choir won't tackle the complete Messiah on Sunday, the portion it will sing -- Part I, which relates specifically to Christmas -- should have a historically grounded sound. To give that sound even more vintage flavor, O'Neal engaged an orchestra of baroque instruments, featuring musicians from the mid-Atlantic region.

"This will be the first time I've ever done Messiah with period instruments," O'Neal says. This will also be her first Messiah with a countertenor [Peter Thoresen] singing the alto solos, a practice that also has historical roots. (The other soloists are soprano Katherine Wessinger, tenor Charles Blandy and baritone Ryan de Ryke.)

To complement the Christmas portion of Messiah on Sunday's program, O'Neal has chosen a portion of the Christmas Oratorio by Bach. "Some people might be upset that we are not doing an entire Messiah this year," she says. "But this is a wonderful juxtaposition of two Christmas pieces -- the glitter and brilliance of Handel, the depth of emotion with Bach."

The juxtaposition theme is woven throughout O'Neal's first season. In February, a program of choral songs with piano accompaniment looks at "Brahms and Friends." And a Mass by Haydn will be paired with liturgical works by Mozart in a spring concert that will bring back the period instruments.

If all goes well -- O'Neal has a three-year contract that is "dependent on the group's financial solvency," she says -- she is likely to stretch the choir's repertoire toward the music of Berlioz. O'Neal is a specialist in that French composer's work. "I'd love to do his L'enfance du Christ one Christmas," she says.

"And I don't necessarily rule out doing some jazz or gospel," she says. "A community oratorio group needs to be versatile."

The new director's arrival on the scene is attracting positive notices even before her first major concert with the choir.

"I've known Melinda for probably 20 years and have great respect for her," says Tom Hall, artistic director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. Both were mentored and befriended by Thomas Dunn, former artistic director of the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston.

"The group is in a position to grow and prosper," Hall says. "And it's good for all of us here to have her around."

The Handel Choir performs at 4 p.m. Sunday at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road. Call 410-366-6544.

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