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The Choir of St. Paul's, led by their music director Ronnie Wise, presented the wonderful Messiah by Handel. This is one of a number of large-scale performances Wise has led during his time at St. Paul's, and Wilmington can be grateful for these generous and ambitious musical offerings.
The work was abridged to approximately half its length. As such, progress was relatively brisk through the prophecies of Christ's birth, the Annunciation, his healing works, the Passion, redemption, and eternal life. Even so, the audience was treated to a veritable hit parade of one outstanding aria and chorus after another. Handel was a master dramatist who could musically paint the character of a setting or an individual in a few phrases. (It is worthwhile to mention that, with the lively Wilmington musical scene, a differently abridged Messiah was taking place at the same time at another church across the street.)
The choir was excellent. A good number of the singers are voice students at the University of North Carolina Wilmington; this level of training and expertise helps create a choir of high quality. They sang with notable passion in "Surely he hath borne our griefs," in the ever-stunning "Hallelujah" chorus (where the four soloists contributed their voices as well), and in the large-scale ending, "Worthy is the Lamb."
One might have wished for a more clarion sound in "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed," and "For unto us a child is born." But overall, there was beauty of tone and a sense of phrase which spoke of musical artistry.
Four fine soloists starred in the work. Soprano Nancy King, very well-known as a performer here in Wilmington and the voice professor at UNCW, sang with her accustomed richness of tone and full, drawn-out lines. A bit of pitch wavering resolved itself within the first couple of numbers. In "Rejoice greatly," she sang the long melismas with seemingly effortless phrasing. There was a special moment here, as her voice color changed with great beauty in the middle section of the aria.
Mary Gayle Greene was the mezzo-soprano. With her rich, full voice, at times one wished that she would emerge more out of the middle dynamic range to higher peaks. This happened in "He shall feed his flock," where her full resonance produced real expressive beauty.
Melvin Ezzell sang the tenor solos with a mellow, supple character. But he could be forceful too. He sang "Thou shalt break them" with sharp declamation which made this aria a dramatic high point of the piece.
John Callison, the bass, was a standout. He fairly took over the church with his strong, resonant sound. He only had two arias in this particular abridged version. But the impression was immediate in the powerful "Why do the nations so furiously rage." The same was true in his other impressive aria, "The trumpet shall sound."
The superb North Carolina Baroque Orchestra accompanied. This unusual group of period instrument performers is headquartered in Davidson, NC, but draws its players from a national pool. They perform all around the Southeast in varying configurations, as called for in a given concert. They will be playing three more Messiah performances in North and South Carolina in the coming weeks.
There were just nine performers for this evening's concert, but their full tone belied that number. The balance with the choir of about thirty was very fine. Phrasing and rhythm were tight and they created the tone and moods needed in this wide-ranging dramatic work.
Special mention should be made of their fine trumpeter, Mario Correa. Just one trumpet was used in this performance, rather than two, as was the case with the oboe also (Will Thauer). The solidity of the bass was provided by Barbara Krumdiek and Sarah Lodico Wines playing cello and violone respectively. The timpanist, Lance Pedigo, offered an interesting artistic choice. He was arguably almost overbearingly strong in "Why do the nations so furiously rage." On the other hand, the fury and fear of war perhaps suggest, on the poetic level, that the drums should awe and overwhelm. One could say that he did that.
Messiah is a piece which truly earns the phrase, "immortal masterwork." For good reason, it is played all over the world. This performance clearly left its good-sized audience uplifted. The "Hallelujah" chorus – where some in the standing audience were singing along – ended the second part with imposing power. The work went out in the blaze of glory of "Worthy is the Lamb" and the Amen fugue. Western culture hardly has a finer monument to its creative genius than this.
This program will be repeated on Friday, December 6. See our sidebar for details.