Confidence is that rare trait that emerges from within us but is also discernible to an observer. During Canterbury Choral Society's recent “A Baroque Christmas” concert, one could chart that confidence and observe how it transformed a musical performance.
A small but highly effective instrumental ensemble drawn from the ranks of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic provided not only a sturdy accompaniment for the chorus, but something of an occasional safety net when things got shaky.
Randi Von Ellefson opened the concert with Bach's “Magnificat,” a 1723 work for soloists, chorus and orchestra. This 12-movement work, whose narrative is drawn from the Gospel according to Luke, is the canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Like much Baroque music, Bach's “Magnificat” is filled with melismas, passages in which one word or syllable is spread across numerous moving notes. In those instances, particularly evident in the passage “He has shown strength with his arm,” the chorus sounded quite tentative.
There were other moments of timidity when the chorus didn't have the support of the orchestra behind them. The singers' confidence did return whenever the ensemble had identical rhythmic passages to declaim.
Varying degrees of confidence were also apparent among the soloists, with soprano Kelly Holst having the most difficulty projecting early on. But as the work progressed, so too did her ability to be heard. It's a light, attractive voice that would be better suited to a more intimate venue.
Rebekah Ambrosini is a frequent Canterbury soloist whose rich, burnished voice lent distinction to the alto passage. Tenor Jeffrey Picon and bass-baritone Kevin Eckard demonstrated attractive voices that projected easily. The chorus' final “Amen” capped off this work with conviction.
I was told that Canterbury had received so many requests to perform Handel's “Messiah” that Ellefson decided to bring it back even though it was featured just two years ago. I'm not convinced that any work, however popular, should be programmed that frequently. If the Canterbury offices were indeed inundated with numerous pleas to perform “Messiah,” one would have expected the hall to have been more than one-third full.
There's an interesting corollary that bears mentioning: if audience members were polled about what they'd like to hear in terms of programming, they couldn't come up with titles of works they don't know. So, “Messiah” will displace seasonal works by Britten, Rutter or Pinkham every time.
“Messiah” is familiar territory for choral ensembles because of its prominence in the repertoire. The tentative quality that emerged in Bach's “Magnificat” all but vanished in “Messiah,” with full-throated choruses (“And the glory of the Lord,” “For unto us a child is born,” “Lift up your heads” and “Let us break their bonds asunder”) buoyed by confident singing. With Ellefson at the helm, one also got brisk pacing that never sounded rushed, a smart approach for a lengthy work.
Handel's most famous oratorio also offered numerous solo opportunities, from Picon's fine diction in “Comfort Ye” and nice lilt in “But thou,” to Eckard's impressive delivery of the recitative “For behold” and the subsequent aria “The people that walked in darkness.”
More impressive still was his aria “The trumpet shall sound” with Eckard's voice dovetailing nicely with Karl Sievers' trumpet lines. Holst mustered ample sound for the lovely aria “Rejoice greatly” and Ambrosini was well supported by the chorus in “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion.”
All of this led to the work's majestic finale, the “Hallelujah Chorus.” With the audience standing, a curious tradition that nevertheless creates a strong bond between performers and patrons, the uplifting strains of this popular chorus rang out with ample pomp and majesty. The magic of Christmas awaits.
— Rick Rogers