Choral Arts Serves Up a Rare Handel 'Feast'

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Sunday's concert by the Choral Arts Society of Washington at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was one of splendor and magnitude. Led by Norman Scribner, the 200-member chorus, a large orchestra using modern instruments, and three soloists turned George Frideric Handel's seldom-heard "Alexander's Feast" into a banquet of grandeur celebrating the power of music to move human emotions. (By sheer serendipity, Washington's Bach Sinfonia performed Handel's ode the previous evening in a version he would have found more familiar -- with chamber-size forces on baroque-period instruments.)

Handel took his text from one of John Dryden's most quoted poems honoring the virgin Cecilia, who gradually assumed the mantle of music's patron saint. Dryden's story line centers on Alexander the Great's ancient conquest of Persia, though Cecilia was martyred centuries later. Homage to her gradually gained universal proportions in Western culture, climaxing in England's annual musical celebrations on her festival day (Nov. 22). Handel's setting followed Dryden's text closely. Oddly, the poet slipped Cecilia into his narrative only at the last minute as the apotheosis of music -- the celestial driving force of earthly love.

The Choral Arts Society's version revealed the breadth of music's possibilities for spectacle. As is typical, the chorus sang with flawless discipline down to the last syllable, though orchestral entrances were occasionally a touch shaggy. Most striking of all was the sensitivity with which the chorus responded to Handel's precisely calculated emotional coloring. The singers delivered "Happy, Happy Pair" with all the lighthearted mirth it demands, and they tackled the overpowering quadruple fugue of the finale with gusto. Soprano Twyla Robinson, tenor Jonathan Boyd and bass Michael Dean lent strength, resilience and drama to their roles. Between the ode's two acts, harpist Piper Runnion-Bareford gave a brisk, energetic account of Handel's Harp Concerto, Op. 4, No. 6.

-- Cecelia Porter

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