Melinda O'Neal ends Handel Choir tenure with Brahms' 'German Requiem'

When Johannes Brahms set about composing a requiem to commemorate his mother, he aimed for something that was more about comforting than crying, more about coming to terms than fretting about whatever judgment might await the dead. The result, "Ein Deutsches Requiem" ("A German Requiem"), is one of the glories of the choral repertoire, one of Brahms' most personal and affecting pieces.

Melinda O'Neal, in her final concert as artistic director of the Handel Choir of Baltimore, conducted an impressive performance of the Requiem Sunday afternoon that communicated its bittersweet lyricism and the ingenious cohesion of its architectural shape.

At the same time, the music-making in the soaring nave of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church emphatically reaffirmed how much O'Neal's nine-year tenure has meant to the development of the choir, one of Baltimore's oldest musical institutions (the current season is its 78th).

For all of the devotion and good intentions involved before O'Neal's hiring, the organization simply lacked the sort of technical discipline and musical sensitivity that can take a volunteer, community chorus to whole new level. It's definitely on a higher level now. 

O'Neal's thoughtful tempos maintained consistent momentum, but still allowed for some beautifully elastic phrasing along the way. (I can go for a much slower pace in a score like this, but I know I'm out of step with our less indulgent age.) 

For this concert, the Camerata of University of Maryland Baltimore County joined forces with the Handel Choir. It may have been an acoustical issue related to my location on the far left side of the church, but, even with the vocal reinforcements, the basses didn't have much presence. Otherwise, the chorus sounded smoothly balanced and articulated with admirable clarity.

The guest soloists, soprano Laura Choi Stuart and baritone Steven Combs, delivered their solos eloquently. The Orchestra of St. John's provided largely solid backing.

A long, welcome silence followed the last chord of the Requiem, then plenty of applause. O'Neal deserved the lion's share on this memorable occasion. 

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