Handel's mighty oratorio, "Messiah," was phenomenally popular during the composer's lifetime; Handel presented it numerous times, tailoring each performance for specific soloists by revising or, in some cases, by composing entirely new music.
For the Baltimore Choral Arts Society's fine performance of the complete oratorio yesterday at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium, music director Tom Hall chose the version of the work used for a famous performance in London in 1750.
It may seem strange to some to hear this work around Easter, but it had its premiere April 13, 1742. Since the bulk of "Messiah" concerns the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, its expressive power realizes its full potential only during this season.
Yesterday, the size of the chorus and orchestra was small, as had been the case at the time of Handel's performances -- about 65 musicians in all. Thus, orchestral textures were gratefully transparent and balanced, and the choral sound pliant and superbly focused.
Indeed, the clarity of sounds in this "Messiah" offered an opportunity to consider Mr. Hall's approach to the score in greater detail than is usually possible when a larger group
In particular, Mr. Hall showed himself remarkably sensitive to the articulation of this music; both the attacks and releases of individual notes were carefully gauged and constantly varied in a manner characteristic of this music's best interpreters.
A small cavil concerned Mr., Hall's liberal additions of ornamentation to the score. While the actual elaborations themselves were entirely plausible stylistically -- no mean feat -- they often failed to do what good ornamentation is supposed to do: decorate what is actually written in a natural and expressive way.
But overall Mr. Hall was triumphantly successful. He was, if anything, more imaginative than ever in balancing modern and historical approaches to the work. Most important, he brought to us a "Messiah" surprisingly gentle and compassionate -- radically different from the extroverted readings the work usually receives, and hence extraordinarily moving.
The most incredible performance of the afternoon -- despite exquisite singing by soprano Faith Okkema, baritone Randal Woodfield and tenor Glenn Heisey -- was that of alto Monica Reinagel. She has a lovely voice and fine technique. However, it was her connection to her audience that remains etched in memory. She is clearly transfigured by this music in a way that only a handful of artists can be, and the ecstasy she shared with us augers greatness.