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Winston-Salem Symphony Music Director Robert Moody inaugurated annual performances of George Frideric Handel's Messiah in Centenary United Methodist Church in 2007. The concerts are presented in honor of Dr. A. Robert Cordell, a member of the symphony's board of directors, who was instrumental in the organization of the now-seasonal tradition. Centenary Church has remarkably consistent acoustics. The only drawback is that those seated in the two transept balconies are at 90° to the vocal soloists, standing before the orchestra and chorus, who are projecting into the nave.
The chamber-sized forces of the Winston-Salem Symphony played superbly. Moody balanced his instrumental and vocal forces superbly with a very refined palette of dynamics and vitally-sprung rhythms so important in the faster passages. One of the delights of Centenary Messiah performances is antiphonal trumpets in Part I, here played with virtuosity by principal Anita Cirba and Kenneth Wilmont. Other prominent players were concertmaster Corine Brouwer, oboists Amanda LaBreque and Alex Liedtke, and bassoonist Saxton Rose. The important continuo part consisted of cellist Brooks Whitehouse, double bassist Paul Sharpe, and harpsichordist Nancy Johnston or chamber organist James Jones. Centenary's large organ was brought into the fray for the rousing final chorus, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain."
There are no weaknesses in the Winston-Salem Symphony Chorale, which is always well-prepared by director Carole Ott. Conductor Moody comes by his seemingly effortless directing having begun his career leading choirs. The Chorale's diction was superb and the musical lines were clear even in the most complex canonic passages. The interplay of lines in such sections was a constant delight.
Moody always has had a strong, well-matched quartet of vocal soloists for these concerts, and that was the case for this outing. All projected strongly and delivered the recitatives and airs very clearly. Tenor Eric Barry's voice rang out with great warmth and a winning tone. His opening portions were sung without reference to the score, but he used one for the less frequently performed portions of Parts II and III. * Philip Cutlip sang with a solid, resonant bass. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop has a firm lower range that gave welcome heft to the rich tone of her portions of Messiah. Moody always has added a bit of drama to his performances by having his soprano begin singing the recitative "There were shepherds abiding in the field" from the aisle in the middle of the nave. Christina Pier sang with a glowing, warm tone that soared gloriously for brilliant highs.
My only minor regret was the omission of recitative 45, Duet 50 ("O Death, where is thy sting?"), and Chorus 51. There was a false start of the chorus 37 ("The Lord gave the Word"), which was quickly started over to great effect. No one in the area who loves Messiah should miss one of these annual performances.
The oratorio will be repeated on Dec. 17, in the same venue. For details, see the sidebar.
*CVNC reviewed tenor Barry's performance as Rodolfo in NC Opera's January 2014 staging of Puccini's La Bohème.