This year's Maryland Handel Festival has been characterized by attention to the social as well as the musical context of Handel's work. Friday's "Messiah" performance reenacted the 1784 occasion of the first Handel festival. Last night's concert of choral and instrumental pieces at the University of Maryland's Memorial Chapel was structured much as a concert might have been in the first half of the 18th century, when celebratory anthems, particularly the coronation anthem "Zadok the Priest," which opened this concert, were ubiquitous and hunks of opera coexisted happily on programs with concertos and other offerings.
For this event, conductor Paul Traver put together the big overture from the oratorio "Esther" (opera in religious disguise), its concluding chorus, a delightful concerto grosso played stylishly by the ad hoc Baroque group also known as the Smithsonian Concerto Grosso, and the "Music for the Royal Fireworks," in its original band scoring, without the strings, which were added later and which so often make the piece sound more elegant, but less cheerful.
At this performance the verisimilitude extended to the technical imperfections occasioned by coping with valveless trumpets and the stubbornness of Baroque double reeds.
The University of Maryland Chorus, reduced to 50 singers, sang with spirit but without the sharply honed rhythmic definition it had in the "Messiah." The five soloists did a fine job with their small assignments, and Traver conducted beautifully.
Fireworks on the green fittingly followed.