As Michelangelo's "Pieta" is somehow able to fuse the agony of death with the miracle of birth and the wonder of eternity, so too does Handel's "Messiah" convey the essence of Christian faith.

Though synonymous with Christmas, "Messiah" extends beyond the virgin birth as Handel -- working feverishly through the most miraculous 3 -week high in music history -- wove a musical tapestry encompassing the heart and soul of Christianity: birth, death and resurrection.

The exultant promise of "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" mutates into the pathos of "He Was Despised" only to be reborn in the triumph of the "Hallelujah Chorus."

In short, "Messiah" is a miraculously organic work in which each aria, recitative and chorus stands on its own artistically, but is spiritually and musically linked to a transcendent whole that never fails to inspire an audience when competently performed.

Our community owes the Annapolis Chorale and conductor Ernest Green a great debt, since their annual performance is our area's single crack at a full-length account of the great oratorio. And Saturday's performance at St. Martin's Church in Annapolis was worthy of the magnificance of the work.

Maestro Green presided over an intimate, Baroque-scaled "Messiah," with the 38 voices of the chorale's Chamber Choir holding forth along with the requisite four soloists and chamber orchestra.

How far the Annapolis Chorale has come. Three years ago, this was an ensemble that had trouble negotiating the lovely but uncomplicated Vivaldi "Gloria."

No longer. True, "Messiah" was sung by an elite Chamber Chorus culled from the ranks of the larger group, but the undeniable conclusion is that the Annapolis Chorale has broadened its vocal horizons in a hurry. Good for it.

This "Messiah" was propelled by choral singing that was alert, spirited and sensitively phrased. The sixteenth-note gymnastics throughout were securely handled, and the choral sound was consistently full, despite the relatively small number of singers.

The ceremonial pomp of "And the Glory," "For Unto Us," "Hallelujah" and "Worthy Is the Lamb" emerged fully. The intimacy of scale allowed all vocal lines to dance with admirable dexterity and clarity.

The one major improvement that should be stressed next year is the need for immediate impact in the opening moments of the second and third portions. The Easter Section is no time for a singer to settle in gradually. "Behold the Lamb of God," with its emotionally charged rhythms, must hit like a ton of bricks.

Likewise, "Since by Man Came Death," the opening choral phrase of Part Three, should quiver with emotion at a raptly intense pianissimo.

Both should be absolutely magic and weren't. At the beginning of these sections, Handel doesn't monkey around and neither should a chorus.

Otherwise, the singers were terrific.

Green's "Messiah" also featured a pair of top-of-the-line soloists.

Tenor James Katchko sang a warm, tastefully ornamented "Comfort Ye" and a spirited "Every Valley" to open the work. He proceeded to impart admirable drama to the Easter portion, which the tenor dominates -- by Handel's choice.

Mezzo-soprano Jeanne Kelly is a wonderfully far cry from the heavy-voiced vibrato machines who so frequently slaughter "He Shall Feed His Flock," "He Was Despised" and the other alto arias. She sang beautifully.

Less idiomatically assured was baritone Jose Oliveira Lopes, whose powerful voice proved blustery enough to bring off "Why Do the Nations" and "The Trumpet Shall Sound" satisfactorily but who nonetheless seemed a bit outside the music.

Alas, the soprano looked and sounded as though she wished she were somewhere else. The voice was attractive enough, but there was but little intensity to her arias. "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth" was not composed as a pleasant, run-through exercise, but that's how it sounded.

First-class trumpets and oboes, along with many delightful ruffles and flourishes from the harpsichord, highlighted the evening's orchestral playing.

Less impressive were the strings, which played their notes well enough but phrased unimaginatively and seemed curiously ambivalent about sustaining their sound.

Green's usual continuo cellist was not available for this year's "Messiah." She was missed.

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