Centenary United Methodist Church was packed with music lovers for the first of two well-prepared performances of the complete standard version of Handel’s Messiah. This was the sixth annual pair of performances since Music Director Robert Moody initiated the series using members of the Winston-Salem Symphony and his specially selected and prepared Messiah Festival Chorus. Moody’s interpretative choices, his consistent selection of excellent soloists, and his scrupulous preparation of the chorus and orchestra have made this a destination event for the Triad.
The series is dedicated to the memory of Dr. A. Robert Cordell. The excellent program book gave the full text of the oratorio, the biographies of the soloists and conductor, lists of the members of the orchestra and the chorus along with fine program notes by David Levy of Wake Forest University. Unlike some medieval-styled cathedrals, Centenary UMC has remarkably even acoustics which allow the performance to be clearly heard throughout the nave including the rear balcony. Right and left transept balconies have poorer sightlines and place the listener behind the soloists. They work out spectacularly well for the antiphonal trumpets in Part I.
Moody arranged his musicians in the church’s crossing with the violins divided on either side of the podium. The double bass and cello were seated behind the first violins on the conductor’s left while the violas were seated behind the second violins on his right. The fine sounding harpsichord (apparently not amplified) played by Nancy Johnston was facing the podium with continuo organist James Jones behind her. When trumpeters Anita Cirba and Kenneth Wilmot were not in the transepts, they were behind the second violins and violas on the conductor's right.
Moody fielded a strong team of soloists. The designation “mezzo-soprano” seems too light for the full rich sound Mary Gayle Greene produces so seamlessly! Her lower register is so firm it has much the quality of a contralto. Her meticulous care for word meaning and emotional context and weight is remarkable. Scheduled tenor John McVeigh was indisposed. He was ably replaced by University of North Carolina School of the Arts faculty member James Albritten who sang with a warm timbre and even tone, excellent intonation, along with careful gauging of word meaning. Hyung Yun was a rock-solid bass of breathtaking power. His articulation in fast passages was marvelous as was his palette of expressive dynamics. Soprano Sarah Jane McMahon made a dramatic entrance, delivering her recitative (No. 14) “There were shepherds abiding in the field” as she approached the podium via the central aisle of the nave, wearing a striking dark venous-red strapless dress. Like her colleagues, her diction was excellent and her voice was gorgeously even across its range and could easily soar to a high of instrumental purity.
The clarity of musical lines and well-sprung rhythms were characteristic of the results Moody drew from his soloists, orchestra, and chorus. There was never a muddy sound from the orchestra and the interweaving of musical lines or multiple pairings of sections of the chorus were a never-ending delight. Moody excels in the expressive power of carefully selected dynamics. Chorus No. 46 “Since by man came death” was masterful in the effect he achieved on the word “death” and the vivid contrast between “For as in Adam all die” juxtaposed to a powerful “even so in Christ shall all be alive.” The performance scored high both for the extraordinary clarity of every single word as well as the depth of their emotional meaning.