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It's been said that, in a spark of creative genius, Handel wrote Messiah in 24 days. It is a piece that is revered by generations for its impassioned score and moving narrative of the life and death of Jesus Christ. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, in the Centenary United Methodist Church, the piece was performed in its fullest glory by the Winston-Salem Symphony and 28 guest vocalists under the direction of Robert Moody. The work's solo numbers were divided among these singers, who also formed the choir for the choruses.
From the first notes of the overture, Moody's Messiah interpretation resonated with strong emotional depth and detailed precision that are rarely heard in other interpretations. Too often, orchestras save the excitement of the piece for the second part, building to the penultimate "Hallelujah" chorus, forgetting that all of the work is a masterpiece. With Moody, his love for this kind of music is infectious to the soloists, players, and audience alike.
The concert was presented for audiences in a spare chamber version. Moody chose a handful of symphony players to create a Baroque chamber orchestra to back 28 of the Triad's best equipped vocalists, singers whose powerful voices equaled the sound of the Symphony's own chorale. Moody worked this to the oratorio's advantage, accentuating Handel's minute details that might be glossed over were the size of the ensembles tripled. With the chamber interpretation came the ability to show the distinction of the work's contrasting tones.
Part 1 (of 3), which tells the Christmas story of the savior's birth, is more pastoral and light-hearted than the rest of the work. Every recitative and aria is jubilant, the choir moving the text along as narrators. There is playfulness in this first section that is at times almost secular and ironic in its mischievous sound against such holy text. It does not however subvert the text but rather underlies the atmosphere and sentiments of the piece.
The tone of the second half of the concert, devoted to Parts 2 and 3 of the score, was significantly darker and more somber, so while we first smiled when the choir sang buoyantly in Part 1, we now reflected as they sang more serious verses of Holy Scripture.
This understanding was so prevalent from Moody and his ensembles that hearing the distinct features in this work was refreshing. Handel is at his most inspired in Parts 2 and 3, as were the orchestra and choir.
Of particular note, vocally, were tenor soloist Derek Jackenheimer (heard earlier this year in Glass' Galileo Galilei) and soprano Catherine Zachary (Sister Constance in last year's Dialogues of the Carmelites), whose tones soared through the hall beautifully. Much of the text in the solos was however blurred by the over-reverberant acoustics of the church though the sound blended well with the orchestra, creating a divine marriage of choir and orchestra.
The performance reordered four solos in Part 3 and omitted one, this abridgement being a common practice for a work that, in its entirety, runs over three hours.
With this performance, the Winston-Salem Symphony continues a holiday tradition that, by the time we arrived at its finale, had us rising to our feet for the second time, uplifted and thankful for this orchestra and its conductor and for bringing us the joy of this music.
To that, "Hallelujah!"