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The annual series of performances of Handel's Messiah in visually resplendent Duke Chapel is a sure sign of the pending holiday season. Clarity of sound aside, there is nothing to compare with attending one of the matinee concerts bathed in the light of all those iridescent stained glass windows, illuminated by the late afternoon sun. When I reviewed the recent Greensboro Symphony performance of Orff's "Carmina Burana," I was impressed by the splendid bass-baritone who had come in on a day's notice to cover for an indisposed singer. When I saw that Grant Youngblood was scheduled as one of Duke's soloists, I eagerly elbowed my colleagues for the chance to cover the December 2 Messiah performance. Although the Chapel's long reverberation time clouds many concerts, a front-row seat eliminated any acoustical reservations on this occasion.
Fine local musicians from both the Triangle and the Triad formed the chamber orchestra. GSO Concertmaster John Fadial led the first violins, Belinda Swanson, the second violins, Scott Rawls, the violas, and Jonathan Kramer, the cellos, and the ubiquitous Robbie Link was the double bassist. Chapel Organist (and occasional cvnc contributor) David Arcus played both the harpsichord and the little Flentrop positiv organ, sometimes simultaneously! All of these musicians had important solos and contributed to the accompaniments for vocal soloists' recitatives. The orchestra was well balanced and readily kept up with conductor Rodney Wynkoop's fleet tempos. Enough time was allowed for the articulation of the parts to fully tell in the chapel. The alert and responsive members of the Duke Chapel Choir filled the side choir stalls as well as risers in the back to form a hollow "U" around the orchestra. When seated, the soloists where hidden from view, but they came out and sang next to the conductor as their turns came. The brief program notes neither identified nor belabored details of the performing edition used, which was by Watkins Shaw.
From ECU, bright-toned soprano Louise Toppin's clarion voice pierced every corner of that vast space. New to me were both tenor Randall Outland and mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis. Outland has a firm and pleasing voice that was well projected. Mezzo DuPlantis, a real find, possesses secure, warm tone that made one look forward to her every return. Bass-baritone Youngblood, a Native American who hails from Lumberton, did not disappoint. I have never heard a finer performance of the famous bass air, "Why do the nations so furiously rage together," in which his rich voice filled the chapel and almost made it shake in time to his singing. The diction of all the soloists and the choir, too, was outstanding and easily intelligible, whether singing in small groups or shattering as a whole. More than anyone I have heard in 30 years, Choral Director Wynkoop routinely succeeds in producing clear performances in Duke Chapel; those who harbor misgivings about the Chapel's acoustics owe it to themselves to sample any choral event he leads there.