Choir begins season with a fresh face

MusicReview

December 21, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

With new guidance on the podium and the unmistakable sound of new potential in the air, the Handel Choir of Baltimore opened its 70th season over the weekend, presenting portions of two holiday classics.

The crowd that turned out Sunday afternoon at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium found a lean ensemble onstage - 40 singers, a third fewer than in recent years. The back-up for the chorus was likewise lean - an orchestra of about 20 baroque-style instruments, which produce a softer-edged tone than modern counterparts.

Melinda O'Neal, in her debut as artistic director and conductor of the Handel Choir, drew appealing intimacy and clarity from these forces in Part V from Bach's Christmas Oratorio and Part I of Handel's Messiah. This was historically informed, but never dry, music-making.

The singers' discipline impressed, though the tone of the men's voices fell short of firmness and refinement, limiting the overall impact.

The conductor set nicely flowing tempos for the Bach selection; the opening Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen danced along with particular flair. There were stylish solo contributions, especially from baritone Ryan de Ryke (one of four valuable guest artists) and concertmaster Christof Richter.

O'Neal's decision to do only the Christmas-related portion of Messiah (with the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Part II tacked on) made sense, given the relatively brief time she has had to work with the choristers.

The women of the chorus shone brightly here, as did the orchestra (this was some of the smoothest period instrument playing I've heard in the area).

The solo quartet added greatly to the effort. De Ryke's phrasing had a poetic spark. Charles Blandy's tenor curved elegantly around his music. Katherine Wessinger used her clear, sweet soprano tellingly.

Countertenor Peter Thoresen did vivid, mostly firm work in a part more commonly sung today by a mezzo or contralto. But compared with the delicious ways that Meredith Arwady ornamented this music at the Baltimore Symphony's Messiah last week (when she reached the word "leap," for example, she added a little leap), his phrasing sounded too by-the-book. Same for the other soloists.

Of course, almost any performance would seem a bit tame next to Edward Polochick's strikingly individualistic version (when he conducts Messiah, even the orchestra gets into ornamentation). But O'Neal's sensitive, assured approach yielded its own rewards and, above all, served notice that the Handel Choir is in very capable hands.

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