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CHORAL AND VOCAL REVIEW

Conductor Jeffrey Thomas

COMPELLING WEILL HALL MESSIAH ORATORIO FROM THE ABS

by Terry McNeill
Saturday, December 15, 2018

Each holiday season when a Classical Sonoma reviewer is assigned to cover a concert with Handel’s seminal Oratorio The Messiah, the question arises about what new commentary can possibly apply to the often performed choral work.

Well, if it’s the American Bach Soloists performing the piece, written in 1741 and the composer’s sixth in the genre, a lot can be said. In a Dec. 15 Weill Hall concert the sterling San Francisco-based ensemble, led elegantly by Jeffrey Thomas, produced a glorious interpretation that lasted two-hour and twenty-minutes and seemingly the interest from the audience of 750 never flagged.

Mr. Thomas arranges his orchestra with a harpsichord and small organ in the middle, with second violins stage left and his 32 singers in a choral circle. The four soloists (Soprano Mary Wilson; Eric Jurenas, countertenor; Aaron Sheehan, tenor; and baritone Jesse Blumberg) were seated in front of the chorus. Throughout the long concert, with a 27-minute intermission, Mr. Thomas drew a sprawling but also graceful interpretation from the ABS, and clearly he knows every note and nuance the score, and is able to generate steady tempos over long sections. The ABS performs this work in four Bay Area halls each holiday season.

Attacks and cutoffs were clean throughout, always with a masterful interweaving of soloists and orchestra sound. Interludes between the 55 short sections in 16 scenes were just a few seconds, and continuo playing by cellist William Keen and organist Steven Bailey kept the music grounded. Listeners expecting clear diction from the chorus and in some solo roles, perhaps from miked recordings, might have found the Weill acoustics sporadically blurring, but overall the conductor was able to artfully control section balances. Fugal parts were paced in exact proportions.

The ABS orchestra produced lovely string sound sans vibrato, and the upper strings’ short repeated notes, contrasting Mr. Juranas’ expressive singing in recitatives (“All They That See Him”, “ Thy Rebuke Hath Broken”, “Behold and See”) was a light and effective spiccato.

Highlights were many. Ms. Wilson’s fioritura in “Rejoice Greatly” was impressive, as was the sterling baroque trumpet playing of Kathryn James Adduci where she swelled powerfully on individual notes. Solo parts for leader Elizabeth Blumenstock, the pre-eminent baroque violinist in Northern California, were few but telling, and the violins executed the many unison short trills perfectly. The alto solo “He Was Despised” just after the break was resplendent. An alto-countertenor duet in “O Death, Where Is they Sting?” was captivating.

At the beginning of the famed Hallelujah Chorus nearly all of the audience stood, though recent research contends that King George II of England didn’t stand for this glorious music in the first London performance, and in fact was not present at all.

Leaving the hall I was reminded of long ago Messiah performances in the cavernous Pasadena Civic Auditorium, conducted by the legendary Richard Lert. The cheapest seats (and much ambient heat) were at the top of the balcony, and that’s where my mother and I listened, and frequently drowsiness was present. But not for this wonderful ABS performance, as the majesty of Handel’s music was constantly enthralling.