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An appreciative and attentive audience filled much of Greensboro's War Memorial Auditorium on December 16 for the 51st annual performance of Handel's Messiah by the Greensboro Oratorio Society, ably conducted by Jay O. Lambeth. Other than a small grant from the United Arts Council, funds that cover the performances come from fees paid by chorus members that defray the costs of scores, engaging the small chamber orchestra, and hiring the hall. A free-will offering was taken during the playing of the "Pastoral Symphony." The amateurs' deep love of music is evident in their willingness to put in long hours of rehearsal and in their close attention and care during the performance.
The men of the chorus seemed outnumbered two-to-one by the women but with their hearty and forthright projection their portions were always readily understood. Lambeth's unrushed tempos allowed the full benefit of clear diction and tight ensemble to register in the space of the large hall. The choir had good tone both as a whole and in individual sections. Highlights were their performances of "And He shall purify," "His yoke Is easy," "Lift up your heads," and the dramatic "Since by man came death." With the addition of trumpet, trombone and percussion, the "Hallelujah" Chorus was the usual hit.
Lambeth assembled an unusually well matched quartet of soloists, all of whom had clear enunciation, good projection, and good tone and intonation throughout their vocal ranges. Soprano Polly Cornelius, based at Elon University, is well known and highly regarded in both the Triad and Triangle for her consistent quality in recital, opera, and oratorio. Burlington-based mezzo-soprano April Hill has sung with two professional choirs noted for the solo quality of their members, the Bel Canto Company (since 1994) and the Carolina Chamber Choir (2000-2002), which I reviewed as part of my Piccolo Spoleto Festival coverage. Her singing of "He shall feed His flock" and her duet with the tenor, "O Death, where is thy sting?" were particularly good. Baritone Robert Wells is currently a member of the voice faculty at UNCG. His performance of "Why do the nations so furiously rage" was a highlight. The fine clarion tenor of Richard Heard, an Assistant Professor of Music at Wake Forest University, was new to me, and all his recitatives and airs were excellent. Local presenters may want to add his warmly musical voice to their rosters.
Compared with the Messiah performances with which I am most familiar — the Duke Chapel Choir's and recordings by Colin Davis, Nicholas McGegan, etc. — the Greensboro Oratorio Society gives a fairly complete reading. In Part I, the recitative and air "For behold, darkness shall cover the earth" for baritone were omitted. Part II had the most cuts — recitatives and airs for tenor, soprano, two choruses, and most surprising, "He was despised" for the mezzo-soprano. Only "I know that my Redeemer liveth" for soprano was omitted from Part III. Even so, a friend who is an orchestra pit veteran of more than two decades said she heard selections that she had never performed. With multiple editions, the directors have a cafeteria menu of options based upon the performers and time that are available.
With a chamber orchestra of twenty-one players, balance with the choir was never a problem. The fine concertmistress was Eve Hubbard. Divided violins gave a truly intimate effect with two players to a part. For such a large hall, the sound of a harpsichord generated by Robert Winsor using a synthesizer was a practical solution. Bob Grier's trumpet heightened the drama of the baritone recitative and air in Part III.