Saturday, December 14, 2019

And His Name Shall Be Called......Seth. Seth, Your God.

Or The Second Messiah of the Season

On Friday evening I had the pleasure of witnessing a live performance of dear Mr. Handel's complete Messiah. (Always remember, dear readers, that it is called Messiah. Not The Messiah.) This took place at the lovely Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, and the artists were Highland Park's Chancel Choir, plus orchestra and soloists, under the very spritely and sensitive direction of Music Director Greg Hobbs. I'd heard great things about Dr. Hobbs and his music making, and I was pleased to learn just how true they were. Under his direction the performance was indeed very musically nuanced, with beautiful interpretive touches at every turn. I had the sense this was a very well rehearsed performance. And I learned some things at this performance. The sensitivity of the performance, combined with my long history with this great work (see my previous post for more info on that), brought tears to my eyes a number of times.

Greg Hobbs
The choir at Highland Park Presbyterian has a very good reputation among Dallas church choirs, I am told. Comprised primarily of volunteers with a few paid singers (and some additional ringers for this concert, it must be admitted), this choir was very responsive to every direction from their skilled conductor. No section was weaker than another, and all had a pleasing sound. In the contrapuntal sections, each voice part was clear and the primary line was always distinguishable from others. Never did I hear any issues with intonation, and these folks can sing fast!

I was also charmed by the orchestra, composed of Dallas Symphony members. But not very many of them. Although playing on modern instruments, they played in a style that suggested an early music orchestra. Again, there was a sense this performance had been quite well rehearsed. The same praise I give to the choir--tone, sensitivity, agility, clarity of line--I give to this orchestra.

I loved the moments when the soloists seemed to be telling the story for the first time. My favorite soloists were soprano Jennifer Wheeler and bass/baritone David Grogan. Ms Wheeler had a beauty and evenness of tone, as well as a sensitivity of interpretation, that were a pleasure. Her performance of "How beautiful are the feet" was balm to my weary soul. And I've never heard a faster "Rejoice greatly"!

From Mr. Grogan's first "Thus saith the Lord" I was impressed. Some vocal entrances should part your hair, and this entrance certainly parted what hair I have left on my head. But Mr. Grogan also sang with sensitivity. In "The people that walked in darkness", where the melody actually mimics walking a very scary path, I could feel a great sense of relief when the melody becomes more tonal with "...have seen a great Light". His other arias, particularly "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?", were quite good, too.

Mezzo Claire Shackleton seems to have a voice suited to a higher tessitura than the alto solos in Messiah. It must be admitted they're low. It's not that she was weak in her low voice--indeed not!--but I kept hearing a shine in her voice that might have blossomed with a higher tessitura. When I realized she would sing both parts of "He shall feed his flock/Come unto him" I was looking forward to hearing her in a higher range, but in this performance they used the version where both halves are in the same key. (There are many valid versions and alternatives for nearly all the solos. This is one of them.)

In all I call this a highly successful performance. Unfortunately, this was the only performance, but I am told this choir sings Messiah every year--well, every other year, alternating with Dr. Hobbs's all-professional choral ensemble, Highland Park Chorale. I hope I will witness these performances every year for as long as I am in Dallas.

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