REVIEW: Community and Concert Hall met at the intersection at Strathmore in the performance of Handel’s beloved oratorio.
by Patrick D. McCoy
PHOTO: L to R: Baltimore Choral Arts Artistic Director Anthony Blake Clark, vocal soloists Lucia Bradford, Aundi Marie Moore, Norman Shankle, Jorell Williams and principal trumpet Chris Gekker bow with conductor Piotr Gajewski (rear center) at the conclusion of Messiah Saturday night at the Music Center at Strathmore.
No matter how many times Handel’s great oratorio “Messiah” is performed, there is something fresh and new that can be taken away from each new experience. That certainly was the case with the rendering by the National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Piotr Gajewski at the Music Center at Strathmore. Joining the orchestra for this performance was the Baltimore Choral Arts Society prepared by music director Anthony Blake Clark and four outstanding soloists: soprano Aundi Marie Moore, mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford, tenor Norman Shankle and baritone Jorell Williams. This ‘Messiah’ may have been a first experience for some and for others it may have been a fresh take on familiar work altogether. What was clear was that there was a very intentional effort to make this particular concert accessible for everyone.
Gajewski led the orchestra, chorus and soloists in part 1, which is often referred to as the ‘Christmas’ portion and selections from parts 2 and 3, which included the famous “Hallelujah Chorus.” If you have attended performances of ‘Messiah’ in the past, you may be accustomed to the vocal soloists seated on stage, performing their solo arias in one place. The exciting thing about this presentation is that it was semi-staged with the soloists moving about the stage as they sang their respective arias completely from memory. After a rather brisk ‘Sinfonia’ by the orchestra, tenor Norman Shankle entered as he sang the opening recitative “Comfort Ye” from stage left. Now center stage with aria “Every Valley,” Shankle sang with a polished tenor that tossed off the fiendish runs with dexterity and lyrical delivery. The voices of Baltimore Choral Arts filled the hall with the “And the Glory of the Lord.” With each vocal entrance solid in their statement of the theme, the voices blended wonderfully together and confirmed the idea that was intimated by the tenor in the preceding aria. Robust, well executed singing was the trademark of the chorus throughout the evening.
Being that this presentation was ‘semi-staged,’ it would have been helpful to have had a description of the context in which the various movements on stage were taking place. Perhaps an aspect of not knowing allowed the audience member to be left up to their own interpretation. Baritone Jorell Williams entered stage right with a sense of urgency as he sang the dramatic recitative “Thus Saith the Lord.” There was such a human side to his appearance. His voice was strong, commanding with gesture to match. With his untied bow-tie draped around his collar, it was almost like a musical metaphor being presented as his resonant voice filled the hall, but that one piece was missing. Was this a nod to what is often present in our society, the appearance of having it together? If so, the messaging was powerful indeed. At this point, mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford entered on stage for the aria “But Who May Abide.” Interacting with Williams as if it were a conversation, there was an innovative twist brought to the aria that now took on the dramatic flair of an opera. The excellent chorus in turn in many ways answered the question in the preceding aria as they expertly negotiated the quick runs of “And He Shall Purify.”
There were so many highlights in this performance. Illumined in a solo spotlight, baritone rendered the recitative “For Behold Darkness Shall Cover the Earth” and the air “The People That Walked in Darkness” with great intensity. The buoyant joy of “For Unto Us a Child is Born” seemed to have lifted the wonderful emotional tension that was created by Williams in his solos. Working in tandem with one another, the vocal solos and choral movements created a dramatic arc throughout. Soprano Aundi Marie Moore appeared radiant in red as she announced the heavenly host in her recitatives. As she concluded with “praising God and saying” she turned to the chorus as they answered her with a resounding “Glory to God.” Following that was the showpiece for soprano “Rejoice, Greatly” in which Moore negotiated the coloratura with a full, warm delivery.
A wonderful surprise happened during the “Hallelujah Chorus.” As the full house stood as it is the custom, after a few bars of the singing the soloists appeared in the audience. Greeting the audience personably with waves, hugs and audible greetings, it was an unexpected, but welcomed treat. In was in that moment that the diverse audience was truly invited to be a part of the experience. Mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford rendered a gripping “He Was Despised.” Her voice commanded the weight of the text and created a palpable response from the audience.
Rounding out the rendering of the oratorio was a stately “The Trumpet Shall Sound” by baritone Jorell Williams, with the outstanding solo playing by trumpeter Chris Gekker. The final chorus “Worthy is the Lamb” with its expansive choral lines, complimented by the full resources of the orchestra rang the hall with a final ‘Amen.’
There is one final performance of Handel’s Messiah with the National Philharmonic on Wednesday, December 20 at Capital One Hall at 7:30 pm. CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS
A native of Petersburg, VA, Patrick holds a BM in Vocal Performance from Virginia State University and a MM in Church Music from Shenandoah Conservatory. Formerly the Performing Arts Columnist for Washington Life Magazine, he currently is a freelance writer, publishing articles for several noted publications and organizations, including The Washington Post, Early Music America, Classical Music Voice North America, The Afro-American Newspaper, Prince George’s Suite Magazine, CBS Washington, Examiner.com and Washington Classical Review. He holds membership in the Music Critics Association of North America, National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc., American Choral Directors’ Association, Association of Anglican Musicians, a former member of the Shenandoah University Alumni Board of Directors, a member of the Shenandoah University Black Alumni Network, a Life Member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and a member of the Sigma Zeta Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity of America. As an alumnus of Shenandoah, he was named to the Dean’s Circle of the Shenandoah Conservatory Advisory Board. He enters his 7th year as Organist/Choirmaster at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Zion Parish in Beltsville, MD and is the newly hired Development and Communications Manager for Washington Conservatory of Music in Glen Echo, MD. Patrick is the host of “Across the Arts” both a live and virtual media platform covering the performing arts. Visit http://patrickdmccoy.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @PatrickDMcCoy, IG: PDM06. and subscribe to “Across the Arts” on YouTube.