The McLean Choral Society's Christmas concert Saturday night at McLean Presbyterian Church combined performers of all ages, from the enthusiastic young voices of the McLean Youth Chorus, to handbell ringing by the teenage members of the Lewinsville Presbyterian Carillon Ringers, and selections from Handel's "The Messiah" sung by the mature voices of the Choral Society.
Except for the addition of the bass solo "But who may abide," the "Messiah" performance was the same music the group presented at its holiday concert last year with music director Thomas Beveridge's new and well-conceived orchestration. But this year the result was improved by a better choice of soloists and the excellent improvisations of harpsichordist Russell Woollen.
Most impressive was bass soloist Richard S. Dirksen. Beveridge chose Handel's infrequently heard original version of "But who may abide," which put the central section ("For He is like a refiner's fire") in a breathtaking triple time. The slower opening was beautifully sung: Dirksen's mellow voice created a gentle, pastoral tempo rather than the more traditional booming exhortation.
Dirksen was equally smooth and evocative in "The people that walked in darkness."
His diction was perfect and his tone sweet yet commanding.
Tenor Richard Turner's performance was less satisfying, not because of any lack of sensitivity or musicianship, which he demonstrated in abundance, but because his voice sounded uncharacteristically fuzzy and unfocused through most of the evening. He seemed to be pushing out the sound rather than letting his naturally elegant voice flow unimpeded. Fortunately, his high notes at the end of the difficult and angular "Thou shalt break them" were fine and his coloratura in the opening aria "Ev'ry valley," which Beveridge took at an extremely fast and exciting pace, was outstanding.
Soprano Margaret Genovese was also good at coloratura in her brisk and peppy "Rejoice Greatly." Her voice had a good size to it, but it was a shade too bright and direct. In the slower sections, such as "Come unto me," she showed little sensitivity to the text or character of the pieces, a problem that was exacerbated by her tendency to swallow consonants at the ends of words. If the texts weren't so familiar, they would have been quite hard to discern.
Mezzo soprano Christine Thomas was the only soloist who suffered in comparison with last year (the alto was sung then by the splendid Theodora Hanslowe). Although Thomas's voice was pleasing enough, her characterizations lacked warmth, an essential quality in solos such as "He shall feed his flock" and "O thou that tellest," and her approach to the phrasing was not much deeper than the right notes at the right time.
A harpsichord cadenza in the Symphonia and wonderful improvised noodling between accented chords in "But who may abide" were the most obvious of Russell Woollen's contributions to the concert, but his steady pace and rhythmic accents did much to enhance the baroque flavor of the ensemble. With the exception of a few problems establishing tempos, Beveridge was a clear and expressive conductor.
The large volunteer chorus (160 members, according to the program) sang very well under Beveridge's direction. Their sound is a bit on the unsophisticated side (open and bright) but their execution is accurate and their negotiation of the fastest passages in "And he shall purify" was clear and impressive.
The McLean Youth Chorus, a group of about 50 children under director Lynne Johnson, has shown considerable improvement since last year. They sang "Bell Noel," a nice arrangement by Johnson of carols with handbell accompaniment (provided by the Lewinsville Presbyterian Carillon Ringers), with clear diction and careful attention to the conductor. Their best work, though, was with two declared favorites, "My Favorite Things" and "Edelweiss," which they sang from memory with great enthusiasm.
The ringers also played a few selections before the official start of the concert, including "change ringing" in the British tradition, which calls for the players to pass bells back and forth. They were a well-disciplined group with good technique and did much to enliven the spirit of the holiday music.