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CHORAL AND VOCAL REVIEW
Mastercard Performance Series / Sunday, December 10, 2017
Philmaronia Baroque Orchestra. Nicholas McGegan, conductor. Yulia Van Doren, soprano; Diana Moore, alto; James Reese, tenor; Philip Cutlip, baritone

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

A SEASONAL MESSIAH WITH BALANCE AND HEFT

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, December 10, 2017

The mid-December concert season seems for jaded reviewers to invariably include a Messiah performance, and perhaps a Messiah in a long string of similar and mundane performances. This was decidedly not the case when San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque mounted Handel’s eminent three-part 1742 Oratorio Dec. 10.

Before a Weill Hall audience of 1,000 conductor Nicholas McGegan fashioned an historically accurate and balanced Messiah reading that gave equal weight to the 24-personal chorus, the 31-person orchestra and four sterling soloists: soprano Yulia Van Doren, alto Diana Morre, tenor James Reese and baritone Philip Cutlip.

Part one developed over 51 minutes into a lovely panoply of complimentary sections, beginning with Mr. Reese’s lyrical tenor and six chorus only sections. Highlights of the latter were “For Us a Child is Born,” the “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd” duet of Ms. Morre and Ms. Van Doren, and the rich non-vibrato violins. Hanneke van Proosdij played throughout a small electric organ, similar to the one used by the American Bach Soloists, and as a continuo it reinforced the cello and bass (stage left) musical lines.

In fast virtuoso runs Ms. Van Doren sung with clear diction and agility, seemingly enticing Mr. McGegan three times to turn towards her from the podium with an admiring smile. Ms. Morre’s sonority was rich in the low register, and Mr. Cutlip showed a vocal “shake” and an expressive melisma in the section “For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth.”

After a half hour intermission Part two was much of a lament with the conductor controlling crisp attacks and releases. The music never seemed too fast and Mr. McGegan adroitly made subtle tempo changes throughout the Part. The two Baroque oboes and two bassoons could seldom be heard in the sonic texture, but if omitted something of richness would be lost. Part two is even longer than Part one, and following the concluding Hallelujah Chorus a number of the audience were seen leaving the Hall. In this Chorus the custom of audience standing (as King George II is said to have stood) was observed, but modern scholarship has pointed to the monarch not rising to the music, and possibly he never attended a Messiah performance. Two Baroque trumpeters and a timpanist added their pungent sound to the mix, and this carried over to the concluding Part three.

In the finale Ms. Van Doren’s great aria “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” had clarion power, and in an odd way reminded me of Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament” sung in Weill a month earlier by Les Artes Florissants, but needing of course greater projection and vocal heft. Kathryn Adduci’s trumpet playing added wonderfully to Mr. Cutlip’s extended and triumphal aria “Behold, I Tell You a Mystery.” Here deceptive cadenzas led to many repeats and a duo of cellist Paul Hale and Mr. Van Proosdij. Equally captivating was Mr. Reese and Ms. Van Doren singing “O Death, Where Is They Sting?”

Mozart must have known the last part of the Messiah, as the great fugue in the fourth movement of his “Jupiter” Symphony reflects the power and ferocity of the last ten minutes of Handel’s soprano aria (“If God Be For Us”) and two choruses. The driving rhythms were expertly managed by Mr. McGegan, bringing a brilliant end to a work that belongs to each holiday season and to the ages.

A standing ovation produced three curtain calls and individual recognition by the conductor of the concertmaster Carla Moore (and ultimately her section) and the trumpets.