In times of national distress and reflection, performances of Handel's "Messiah" seem more necessary than ever.
Chicago audiences this holiday season have their choice of widely diverse versions of the beloved oratorio, from Baroque-style to sing-along to jazz-gospel, each pitched to its own niche public. Last weekend I dropped in on a "Messiah" that proudly carries the most venerable tradition of them all: the one presented by the Apollo Chorus of Chicago.
The area's leading all-volunteer chorus has performed "Messiah" practically every December since its founding 140 years ago – a track record unmatched by any choral society in the nation, as far as one can tell. In fact, the oldest musical organization in Chicago has much to sing "hallelujah" about.
Stephen Alltop's arrival as music director 15 seasons ago has had a revitalizing effect on the group that is reflected not only in its "Messiah" performances but also in the richly varied repertory it performs in and around the city during the rest of the season.
The 120 singers range in ages from 20 to 70 – one member has been singing in the chorus for more than 50 years – and include everyone from doctors, lawyers, music teachers, graduate students and alumni of Northwestern University, where Alltop serves on the conducting faculty of the Bienen School of Music.
He says that, far from being a limitation, the fact that the volunteer choristers aren't paid actually can work to the benefit of the musical results he's able to elicit from them.
"To be quite honest, I think that a chorus like the Apollo is able to achieve certain things that would be difficult to do if they were bound by the costs, rehearsal limitations and other protocols that sometimes come into place with a professional chorus," he observes. "It doesn't matter if singers, or any other musicians, are paid or unpaid – the standard one is pursuing is exactly the same.
"Members of the Apollo Chorus work just as hard as they can, and however hard I ask them to," he adds. "That's why I am still conducting them."
Alltop recently was named Conductor of the Year by the Illinois Council of Orchestras for his work with the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra, of which he is music director, and other area ensembles. He has led each of the Apollo's Christmas presentations of "Messiah" since 1997.
The Apollo "Messiah," which I caught Sunday at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, drew on elements from the worlds of historically informed and modern performance and managed to integrate them more successfully than any number of fully "professional" readings I've heard over the years.
Many of the players who made up the 28-piece orchestra also perform on period instruments with such area groups as Baroque Band and Haymarket Opera. The sound Alltop elicited from them was crisp, light on its feet, yet full enough to frame the choral and solo singing effectively. The unabridged performance flowed with shapeliness and an exultant spirit that came from the heart.
The massed voices – arranged heterogeneously rather than in more typical clusters of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses – sang roughly half of the oratorio from memory, including the Christmas portion and "Hallelujah" chorus. Thorough drilling on matters of diction, blend, intonation and articulation freed them to focus on conveying the meaning of the words. Such technically tricky passages as the staggered entrances of the fugal chorus "Let us break their bonds asunder" were crisply achieved at a brisk clip.
Once she got her vibrato under control, Sarah Gartshore sang with a rich, shining soprano, making the airs "I know that my Redeemer liveth" and "If God be for us, who can be against us?" an unshakeable declaration of Christian belief.
Both the mezzo-soprano and baritone soloists, Kathryn Leemhuis and Paul Scholten, are alumni of Lyric Opera's Ryan Opera Center. Her timbre was attractive but wan, lacking in enriching vibrato and overtones; she was fiercely expressive in "He gave His back to the smiters." There was genuine dramatic urgency behind everything Scholten sang, not least in "Why do the nations so furiously rage?" and "The trumpet shall sound," which gloried in his firm, clarion tones.
The tenor, Matthew Newlin, was arealdiscovery. His clear lyric instrument had the sweetness and agility needed to distinguish all of his contributions, notably the recitative "Comfort ye, my people" and its accompanying air, "Every valley shall be exalted." Each soloist embellished the repeats of his or her selections, some more generously than others.
The obbligato players were first-rate, notably concertmaster Jeri-Lou Zike and principal trumpeter Chris Hasselbring. Cellist Craig Trompeter and harpsichordist Paul Nicholson made up the stylish continuo group. All in all, this "Messiah" justified its reputation as one of the area's most reliable versions of Handel's holiday hit.
The Apollo Chorus' season will continue March 2 (Haydn's "Theresienmesse" and Charpenter's Te Deum in D major), and May 3 and 5 (music of Stephen Paulus); 312-427-5620, apollochorus.org.
Sharps and flats
If you long to sing in the chorus of a do-it-yourself "Messiah" and weren't able to attend this week's International Music Foundation-sponsored performances in downtown Chicago, you have another chance to do so this weekend. The Glenview Community Church Chancel Choir and Waukegan Symphony Orchestra will present the Christmas portion of Handel's oratorio, along with a carol sing-along, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Glenview Community Church, 1000 Elm St., Glenview. Stephen Blackwelder will conduct. Admission is free; 847-724-2210.
Chicago's Chinese Fine ArtsSocietyhas received a $17,500 Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support its 2013-14 Five Elements Project. The two-year initiative will comprise several commissioned works inspired by the traditional Chinese elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth. New works by the Chinese-American composers Zhou Long and Huang Ruo will receive their premieres during the society's 2014 concert series. Ruo's will be a violin piece written for Chicago's Rachel Barton Pine. The project is dedicated to the memory of the society's founder, Barbara Tiao.