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A glorious Messiah provides rousing finale

  • Jul 14, 2009
From The Register-Guard Conductor Helmuth Rilling and the Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra and Chorus concluded the 40th annual Oregon Bach Festival at the Hult Center on Sunday with a glorious performance of G.F. Handel's "Messiah." Rilling showed ceaseless energy. His style was electric as he conducted an orchestra and full chorus from memory. Rilling's tempos were brisk, but natural. The pace made for a thrilling interpretation of "For unto us a Child is Born." The chorus' contrast between the delicate A section and the stentorian setting of the words "Wonderful, Counsellor" was impressive. The Pifa (Pastoral Symphony), however, sounded more fitting for a dance hall than an Arcadian space. The orchestra fit the dimensions common to Handel's time: 20 string players, three woodwinds, two trumpets, timpani, harpsichord and organ. The orchestra's articulation and phrasing was flawless. During the aria "He shall feed His flock like a shepherd," countermelodies were easily audible in the strings. At other times, the orchestra played sustained chords. This texture created a well-balanced foundation upon which tenor James Taylor inlaid "Thy rebuke hath broken His heart." The chorus, which was approximately four times the size of the orchestra, was the showcase of the evening. Balance was no problem. The choristers expressed the text with superb diction, and articulated precise melismas. The ensemble sang as one magnificent voice. The audience stood during the "Hallelujah" chorus, which enhanced the "Messiah" experience by connecting those present to a tradition that is said to date back to the first London performance of the oratorio in 1743. (Legendarily, upon the London premiere of "Messiah," King George V was struck so deeply by the text "For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth" that he, along with the entire audience, rose and remained standing until the end of the chorus.) Handel's musical setting is capable of penetrating beyond the ears and into the hearts of believers and nonbelievers alike. It is the way in which Handel shapes the emotional richness of the text during series of recitative-aria-chorus sequences (with variation) that makes for a stirring experience. He is a master of contrast and musical symbolism. In "Messiah," the soloists do not impersonate the roles of characters. Rather, each plays a part in narrating the story. There is room for dramatic interpretation, however, which each of the four soloists exhibited with personal flair. A scattering of da capo arias gives all the soloists an opportunity to display their voices at full Baroque throttle. Soprano Robin Johannsen sang "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion" with ardency. Her voice was shimmering. Countertenor Daniel Taylor gave a fiery performance. His tone was resonant, and his shading of notes impressive, particularly during "But who may abide the day of His coming?" and "He was despised and rejected." Tenor James Taylor’s delivery of "Ev'ry valley shall be exalted" was vibrant.