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Messiah in Review

Tuesday, December 8, 2009, 00:43 EST Leave a comment Go to comments

Every year for the last several years, I have gone to the Worcester Chorus‘ annual presentation of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Every year for the last several years, I expected and got an enjoyable, good quality performance. This past Saturday night, I didn’t get it.

I don’t like having to say that. The chorus did their part. The orchestra did their part. Most of the soloists did their part. It was the conductor who ruined it.

2009-10 is Christopher Shepard‘s first season with the Worcester Chorus. With any luck (for the audience), it will be his last. He rushed everything so badly that I wonder if the musicians were being paid by the minute. (My tweet at the intermission raised the possibility that Shepard had a date waiting for him.) When I say he rushed everything, I don’t mean that he took some artistic license, as all conductors do. I mean the entire oratorio—symphonies, arias, choruses (only recitatives were spared, the soloists having more control over the tempo)—was so fast that it was distracting. I should have thought to capture a few snippets on my BlackBerry so readers could judge for themselves.

The chorus did a great job given what they were told to do. They delivered their pieces with as much crispness and richness as was humanly possible, which unfortunately wasn’t enough. What should have been precise runs sometimes turned into mush, passages that were written to build and swell didn’t have time to, and the words and (more importantly) the meaning got lost at times. To their credit, they appeared not the least bit flustered, which must have been no small feat for a group that had to know their leader was ruining things. I can only imagine how much more magnificent they would have sounded if they had been allowed to sing the music correctly.

As fine a job as the chorus did with what they were given, the orchestra was almost as commendable. I kept expecting the strings to lapse into sloppiness, but they kept it together remarkably well. Like their vocal counterpart, the orchestra could have shone even more brightly under better direction.

The guest soloists were of varying quality. Soprano Jayne West was by far the best of the bunch. The timbre of her voice was light and bright without being weak, her delivery was effortless (except in a couple isolated instances at the very top of her range), and her facial expressions were appropriate and genuine. She saved the evening.

The tenor, Ryan Turner, had a crystal clear voice and would have been the star if not for West. He delivered moving recitatives and enthusiastic arias, my favorite of the evening being “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted.” I wished for more tenor selections to further showcase his talent.

Dimitrie Lazich, bass-baritone, had outstanding vocal quality but was lacking in his delivery. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he was as distracted by what was going on behind him as I was. After a lackluster performance early in the evening, he bounced back after the intermission with a stirring rendition of “Why Do the Nations.”

The mezzo-soprano, Pamela Dellal, was a disappointment. She swallowed her words, failing to open her mouth enough to produce either full sound or correct pronunciation (the word “high,” for example, came out very close to “hoy”). It didn’t help matters that the bottom of her range was thin, which is a real problem when singing pieces written for a contralto.

Unfortunately, each soloist was also rushed in his or her pieces by conductor Shepard. The exception was in the recitatives, the tempo of which by design are more under the control of the soloist. Shepard made other decisions that detracted from the evening as well. Instead of having the soloists stand and join the chorus in “Hallelujah,” as is traditional, he kept them seated. He brought in an uncredited and completely unnecessary organist during the second part at a point when several members of the chorus had to move rather conspicuously to give her access to the organ. He kept the solo trumpeter seated during “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” something I have never seen before and hope to never see again. And apparently in lieu of participation in the “Hallelujah,” he had the soloists pop up and finish the last several measures of the “Amen” with the chorus. It was an uncomfortable ending to a painful performance.

Finally, elements of the audience left something to be desired. For some reason, there were more than the usual number of novice concert-goers who haven’t yet learned classical music etiquette. They insisted on giving a raucous and extended ovation after the “Hallelujah” and didn’t take the hint when the majority of us tried to lead by example. It must have been the same people who, at the curtain call, hooted and hollered as if at a sporting event.

The local newspaper hasn’t yet published a review. Maybe they won’t. My opinion, however, is that I will sit out next year if Mr. Shepard is still at the helm.

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