The only modest aspect of the Handel Festival at the Kennedy Center Saturday night was its length. Otherwise it proved a musical exaltation of truly Handelian proportions.
The program immediately took flight on the joyful, pure sound of soprano Linda Mabbs in the opening "Laudate pueri," a youthful cantata from Handel's first trip to Italy. Organ soloist Norman Scribner revealed the composer's playful side in an organ concerto that introduced bird imitations into its second movement. The respected English tenor, Richard Lewis, added the dimension of wisdom with his keen dramatic interpretation of two arias, injecting a conviction that more than compensated for some vocal difficulties. And the full-bodied sound of the Westminster Choir, whose director is Allen Crowell, brought the first half to a resplendent close with one of Handel's mighty Coronation Anthems.
The second half was devoted to the "Ode for St. Cecilia's Day," whose text, appropriately, glorifies the art of music. The orchestra and continuo, which had played with precision and feeling under Stephen Simon's spirited direction, found, along with Simon, an increased intensity. Cellist Evelyn Elsing contributed a particularly lovely solo. Soprano Mabbs, whose control and agility had dazzled in the first half, scored with expanded strength and freedom, finding new expressive peaks. If the blazing final choral fugue did not quite manage to, as the text read, "untune the sky," the encore -- what else but the "Hallelujah" chorus? -- certainly brought house down.