Chorale's 'Messiah' Is Balanced, Powerful

(Vocal Arts Society)
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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

In the ongoing fight over how Handel's "Messiah" should be performed -- with a large chorus or small, period or modern instruments, sung straightforwardly or with ornaments, taken at sprightly or reverential tempos -- Saturday's reading at Strathmore by the National Philharmonic Chorale might be considered a fine middleweight contender.

With a chorus of roughly 120 that weighed in somewhere between the intimate chamber ensembles and more gargantuan choral societies that sing this work, conductor Stan Engebretson drew hall-filling power from them when necessary -- "Surely he hath borne our griefs" packed an exciting punch -- but kept much of their singing transparent and light. As is customary under this conductor, the performance clipped along at an engaging pace and his chorus made a handsome, well-disciplined sound, enlivened by tellingly molded phrasing.

A chamber-size reduction of the National Philharmonic balanced the agility and minimal vibrato of historically informed style with enough tonal weight (but never bloat) to carry Handel's more sober passages. Among the soloists, bell-toned soprano Danielle Talamantes and tenor Robert Petillo (one of the enduring joys of the local early-music scene) sang with lithe phrasing, stylish ornamentation and notable purity of sound that bespoke firm grounding in period practice. Mezzo Patricia Miller and baritone Jason Stearns supplied more grandly operatic thrills in their large-scale and vividly characterized approach to the score.

-- Joe Banno

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