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Backed by the Charlotte Symphony Chorus, formerly the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, performances of Handel's Messiah by the Charlotte Symphony have been a fairly consistent holiday staple over the years. Since 2002, the only gaps on my calendar have occurred in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2016. Until this year, when the orchestra passed on performing the Handel masterwork, the Symphony Chorus would also sit out. But with the new Charlotte Bach Festival spreading its wings here, in Gastonia, and in Winston-Salem over a full week in June (piloted by former Oratorio Singers music director Scott Allen Jarrett). there's a new Baroque fervor in the air – and evidently new connections for the Charlotte Symphony Chorus and current Charlotte Symphony director of choruses Kenney Potter to explore. As a result, the Symphony Chorus, newly rebranded for the holidays as the Charlotte Master Chorale (with a PO box in Matthews, so stay tuned), is giving three Messiah performances under Potter's direction. Joining them for two of the performances at First United Methodist Church – and the third in Gastonia – is the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, which certainly enhanced its stature at the June festival.
The concerts mark the return of the Chorale to First United, performing Messiah there for the first time since they were still the Oratorio Singers. in 2004, but this obviously represents a departure as well, for the 24-member NC BaroquOrchestra performs on authentic period instruments (including two valveless trumpets and a double-necked theorbo), and its musicians adhere to Baroque performance practices. Though originally presented in a concert hall, I couldn't help feeling that the church, the authentic instruments, and the reduced orchestra brought us closer to the Messiah that Handel originally imagined – and what amazed Dubliners in 1742 actually heard. Compared to Belk Theater, which flings the sound of the chorus at us, First United seemed to cuddle, warm, and slightly mute the Master Chorale's sound before it wafted over the musicians' heads. From beginning to end, they were ideal – exactly what you would hope for in a city known for its churches.
Perhaps the best example of the Baroque Orchestra's mettle was in its effortlessly fleet introduction to the Master Chorale's "For unto Us a Child Is Born" and in the gritty churning of the strings that underpinned the climaxes at "Wonderful! Counsellor!" The ensemble's jubilation was thrilling and infectious, but they also showed their affinity for sacred music when they dug into the intro and accompaniment for "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth." Individually, I would single out the work of first trumpeter Doug Wilson in the triumphant "The Trumpet Shall Sound."
Of course, the biggest variables at annual iterations of Messiah are the solo vocalists. How would Potter fare on recruitment? Here we had the best news of all, for all four guest performers were eager, strong, confident, and at ease. Soprano Awet Andemichael and countertenor Timothy Parsons were seated on the audience left side of the stage, with tenor David Vanderwal and bass baritone Jesse Blumberg at the right. Evaluating their performances is largely a matter of cataloguing what each of them sang and lauding the pure tone, genuine feeling, and impeccable breath control they brought to each piece, with the possible exception of Vanderwal, who had only one extended chance to shine and who hit his home run on "Thou Shalt Break Them" late in the evening, making his mark with the rigor of his attack on the verbs break and dash.
Andemichael was the most facially expressive and theatrical of the soloists, showcasing her soothing declamatory capabilities in the "I bring you good tidings" recitative and the suppleness of her coloratura in "Rejoice, Greatly." Listening to Parsons in "Thou That Tellest Good Tidings," I admired his ability to reach the low note of "Judah" without scooping, as many contraltos do, but I worried whether he would be able to attack "He Was Despised and Rejected" with the necessary forcefulness. Not only did he render "He gave His back to the smiters" with true grit, but he also managed to negotiate "spitting" without sounding pompous or silly.
Here it should probably be mentioned that the vocalists were refreshingly uncommitted to authenticity, adding the extra syllable at the end of past-tense verbs only when the melody compelled it. Blumberg especially gratified me when he didn't add the extra syllable to "The People That Walked in Darkness" every time he repeated the verb. A relaxed, America manner is not amiss here. From the moment we began to hear Blumberg's well-rounded low notes, I knew that he could rank among the best basses I've heard live in Messiah since I first became enamored of it in the late '60s up in New York at Queens College. While I might have liked to hear the conspiratorial decrescendos some more theatrical singers employ to add a little twinkle to "all nations" – after a mighty "shake the heavens" – the range, authority, and sheer beauty of Blumberg's singing were nonpareil. Coupled with Wilson's virtuosity, Blumberg's was the best "Trumpet Shall Sound" I've heard anytime, anywhere.