Parking was very dear as the audience for a near sold-out house streamed into Centenary United Methodist Church for the first of two performances of the complete Messiah of George Frideric Handel. This fifth annual presentation was dedicated to Dr. A. Robert Cordell. The fine up-dated program book gave the oratorio's full text, listing each soloist for individual recitatives and arias, members of the Winston-Salem Symphony. and the keyboard players, and it retained Wake Forest University's David Levy's excellent program notes. While Handel may well have composed Messiah in an intense 24 days, the ever-practical musician did not hesitate to rework earlier music to create new arias or choruses. A 1741 Italian chamber duet, "Quel fior che all' alba ride," furnished material for "His Yoke is easy" and "He shall purify." Handel did not think twice about adapting his original Dublin version for the forces on hand in subsequent revivals.
Unlike some other churches built on a cathedral plan, the acoustics of Centenary United Methodist Church are remarkably even. The only drawback to balcony seating in the two transepts, where I was for the first Moody led Messiah in 2007, is being located behind the soloists, who face the nave. The sound is fine in the nave but sight lines can be blocked by structural columns. The sound is best in the rear balcony where I was delighted to sit this year. Moody arranged his orchestra in the church's crossing with his superbly prepared chorus on risers in front of the church's choir area. The harpsichord, played by Nancy Johnson, and the chamber organ, played by James Jones, were in front of the conductor, dividing the orchestra. The vocal soloists were arrayed on either side of Moody. The transepts were fully exploited for wonderful antiphonal effects with trumpeters Anita Cirba and Kenneth Wilmot facing each other from above the crossing. What a venue for Gabrieli or Vivaldi choral and brass works!
The members of the Winston-Salem Symphony played beautifully, and musical lines were very clear. Although I did not see any sign of subtle amplification, much of the harpsichord's accompaniment was audible at the back of the nave. The chamber organ was easily heard as part of the continuo with cellist Brooks Whitehouse and Paul Sharpe, double bass. Saxton Rose's bassoon blended so well with the bass line I never really heard it as a separate element. Oboists John Hammarback and Amanda LaBrecque were excellent, and the trumpets and Peter Zlotnick's timpani were resounding successes! Concertmaster Corine Brouwer played expressively and subtly as usual.
Moody's 52-member Messiah Festival Chorus was superb in every way. The words were clear no matter how fast the tempo or complicated the division of vocal parts. The chorus "Since by man came death" was especially effective. This performance was blessed with a strong and well-matched set of soloists who all dealt very well with more than usual amounts of ornamentation. Soprano Jessica Cates, a Greensboro native, sang her first Messiah with a beautiful, bright, and evenly balanced voice. She was very expressive, and her diction was excellent - as was that of all her colleagues. Tenor Jonathan Blalock had a very even, pleasing timbre across his vocal range. Mezzo-soprano Meghann Vaughn's lower range was very solid, leading to a full, rich sound quality. Bass Sidney Outlaw was a riveting success, delivering his lines with authority and a wonderfully full and well-rounded sound. His voice filled the church with ease. One of the pleasures of being a CVNC reviewer is watching the growth of new talents into full maturity and success. I first heard Outlaw in 2001 when he was a high-spirited undergraduate from Brevard in UNC Greensboro's School of Music operas, and I have been delighted to chronicle his growth ever since.