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When this reviewer arrived at St. Peter’s United Methodist Church in Morehead City at 7:11 p.m. for the Crystal Coast Choral Society and Orchestra’s performance announced for 7:30 p.m., he found the space full to overflowing; the size of the crowd was quite impressive. Finley Woolston was delivering a chatty musicology-lite lecture on Messiah. Woolston’s latest variation on why King George stood up was not enlightening, and it is to be hoped that Woolston will get his Georges straight before he does stand-up patter about Messiah again. “George the First” was too dead to stand up at any performance of Messiah. The music’s the thing; it would have been far nicer to have some more of the omitted music and no talk. Nice brisk double dotted string playing always trumps somebody trying to explain double-dotting.
Messiah is all kinds of things to all kinds of people. It’s a warhorse, it’s a “Christmas must,” its libretto is a piece of inscrutable Masonic theology, its libretto is a collection of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations theology, its libretto and music are a picture of great love and hope, etc, etc. It was indeed all those things and more in this performance. There is something for everyone in a Messiah performance, good or bad; this was no exception. First of all, the accessible music had most of the crowd engaged, excited, and tapping their toes. Secondly, the wonderful Crystal Coast Choral Society was well-prepared by director Woolston and clearly as happy to be singing Messiah as the audience was to hear it. Thirdly, the orchestra was composed of a lot of the area’s best amateur and professional talent.
St. Peter’s UM Church is one of those acoustic spaces that features extreme clarity without any reverberation; the listening was easy. Woolston took the Overture at a stately and nostalgic pace. The orchestra included only one cello and one double bass. The double bass, although precisely played, was far too prominent through the whole concert. The strings had the very minor intonation problems. That said, this is a strong group of local people, playing something more noble than the radio and the guitar, the otherwise ubiquitous musical instruments of eastern North Carolina.
The evening’s soloists were all more than adequate for the circumstances. All were well prepared. Their arias had stylish variations in the repeats and interesting if modest solo cadenzas, the only token bow to baroque music other than the rather inadequately brisk double-dotting that Woolston made such a big deal over in his pre-concert lecture. The soloists would all be a pleasure to hear again.
Especially nice to hear again would be Lewis Moore’s superb baritone voice, a voice perfect for this music, pure and clean, gentle and strong. He brought a wonderful deft lightness of touch to his arias and recits.
Sharon Munden’s voice has lots of quaver and little volume, but she sings very prettily, with neatly executed ornaments, and a nice timbre, especially obvious in "Behold a Virgin" and "O Thou."
Elizabeth Byrum Linnartz has a clear and pure voice, very understandable diction, and apparently an ability to sing most of this music a lot faster than it was conducted.
David Wiehle has a voice that is delicious and delicate and worked well in duets with Linnartz. His voice has a fast little vibrato that is not obvious except through the closest listening. He has good facility in fast passages.
"And the Glory of the Lord" gave the first opportunity to hear the chorus; wow! The chorus was completely devoid of the dreadful screechy vibrato of ancient church choir voices. The chorus sounded much like the young voices of a well-prepared college chorus.
The electronic keyboard simulating a pipe organ, not called for in the score, was far too strong.
The whole evening was marred by a general lack of stage presence and sense of timing about entrances; there was far too much faffing about before each new piece. This was glaringly apparent at the point where the chorus should enter subito with "And He Shall Purify." A big gap here destroys any musical continuity and gives the impression that this is a sequence of twenty-eight anthems and not one cohesive oratorio. In defense of the choir, the singing was excellent in this demanding chorus.
Anyone who regularly examines the Eastern NC CVNC calendar is well aware that performances of this caliber are few and far between. The Crystal Coast Choral Society and Music Director Woolston are to be commended for bringing this fine music to the area. While the performance had its problems, it also had many more commendable high points. This reviewer looks forward to hearing more good things from them.