A sure sign of the Christmas season is the three performances of Handel's Messiah oratorio by the Duke University Chapel Choir. These annual performances date back to 1932. According to the chapel's website the choir has some 150 members drawn from the Duke and Durham communities. Many music lovers consider the current period of director Rodney Wynkoop the "Golden Era" of the series. No other conductor has been so consistently skilled at keeping complex musical lines clear in the difficult acoustics of Duke Chapel. His breaking up of traditional uniform choir seating, from a series of phalanxes of sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses into a mosaic of groups of vocal quartets, has helped facilitate the extraordinary clarity of their delivery of the text despite the long reverberation time of the hall. Wynkoop always presents a "complete" Messiah, clocking in at around three hours because, in part, of his fast allegros. Messiah-lovers anticipate what rare or unusual selections the director has chosen from the cafeteria of possibilities from the various early performance history of Handel's most popular oratorio. This year's performance featured several in Parts II and III.
Wynkoop always fields a group of fine vocal soloists and this year's quartet was a royal flush! Soprano Ilana Davidson was an elegant, polished singer with a winning tone and a very evenly supported voice across its range. Her quiet singing was particularly subtle and her highest notes rang gloriously throughout the chapel. All four soloists could give master classes in perfect diction! I thought of the uneven results of my French and German teachers (ages ago) as I reveled in the male singers wonderfully rolled Rs. Internationally renowned counter-tenor Drew Minter was masterful in dramatizing the words and in extensively ornamenting the repeated lines. His clear, warm tone was welcome. John Elwes was a superb tenor with a pleasing timbre and vivid projection. The dazzling bass soloist was Alexander Dobson whose wide palette of vocal expression was wedded to vivid facial expression. What a delight it was to have a very firm bass instead of a baritone in the role. His ringing highs ran evenly down to real firm, resonant lows. What a perfect Polyphemus in Handel's Acis and Galetea he would make! Oh ruddier than a cherry!
Wynkoop's ad hoc chamber orchestra was drawn from many sources: the North Carolina Symphony, the Greensboro Symphony, the Charlotte Symphony, the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, and free-lancers. Ciompi Quartet leader Eric Pritchard had many fine violin solos and was joined by second violin leader Dana Friedli, cellist Virginia Hudson, and Chapel Organist David Arcus, on chamber organ or harpsichord, for memorable accompaniment of recitatives or gentle airs. Don Eagle delivered the clarion trumpet solo for "The trumpet shall sound" beautifully without covering the bass soloist.
Wynkoop's large Duke Chapel Choir was arrayed on risers behind the orchestra and before the altar. They delivered the text with a clarity that would have been the envy of a crack chamber choir. Their dynamic range ran from a hushed pp to a rafter-shattering ff. Not only were the words clearly projected but so was the dramatic or emotional quality!
Among the textural variants were these: In Part II the tenor recitative "Under which of the angels said he at anytime" was followed by the chorus "Let all the angels of God worship him." Also unusual to me was the countertenor recitative "Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written" in Part III. Wynkoop and his forces can always be counted upon to deliver one of the most fascinating and satisfying Messiahs in the region. Not for nothing is the series frequently sold out.