By the time this review is published, the curtain will have come down on Duke University Chapel‘s annual production of Handel’s Messiah, this year featuring three sold-out performances. It was the 85th year of these presentations, concerts that concurrently marked the 29th and final season in which the oratorio was directed by Rodney Wynkoop, whose tenure as Director of Chapel Music will end in June. (His work in Duke’s Department of Music and as director of the Choral Society of Durham and the Vocal Arts Ensemble will continue.)

Someone said he’s led 580 performances. We’ve long called him the Triangle’s (benevolent) choral czar. The annals support that contention, for it’s likely he’s done more work in this field than all the other directors of community and professional choirs here, combined. Among other things, he’s consistently delivered high energy, excitement, precision, attention to dynamics, phrasing, balance, blend, and more. He’s retained his dashing appearance – who knew the Fountain of Youth bubbled up from those basement pipes? – and his trim physique. His shoes will be devilishly hard to fill (with no pun intended). Messiah has been heard more often under Wynkoop’s direction than any other major work he has led at Duke, and it’s surely safe to say that none was in any sense routine. Just how much the score means to him is reflected in every measure as he conducts and amplified in his note for this year’s program, a note we urge every attendee to read. (For more about Wynkoop, see this admirable account in the Duke Chronicle.)

This year’s presentation was the standard SATB version and featured four exceptional soloists, all exceptionally well matched in terms of vocal splendor, technical polish, stylistic sensitivity, and refined oratorio skills (in contrast, specifically, to the more operatic approaches sometimes encountered). Mary Wilson, a Chapel veteran, sang with inspiring mastery of her part, placing the words clearly and precisely on the vocal tone, even in the highest registers, making her a rarity among sopranos and even rarer still among American sopranos. Margaret (“Meg”) Bragle, the alto soloist, has likewise been here previously; this is a remarkable instrument, rich, often velvety in sound color, with mostly smooth transitions into a chest voice of atypical radiance. Derek Chester has considerable experience in Baroque practice, and this showed in everything he did with his important tenor recitatives and arias. Bass Hadleigh Adams made his Chapel debut on the occasions of this run, his rich and powerful voice was at times electrifying to this listener, and he obviously enjoyed his work. In all cases, the soloists exceeded expectations and in addition their ornamentations were distinctive and compelling, giving those repeated sections special importance. The basso has previously used his voice in Bach and Handel oratorios but there also may well be a Boris in his future, too.

The Orchestra Pro Cantores is Wynkoop’s regular Chapel band of seasoned area professionals, 18 strings and stellar wind, brass, tympani, and keyboard specialists. Eric Pritchard was concertmaster, Christopher Jacobson was the harpsichordist and organist, Virginia Hudson was principal cello, and the incomparable Don Eagle was principal trumpet, aided and abetted by his colleague Van Zimmermann. These latter guys don’t have all that much to do, but when they do what they do it really, really matters. The little Baroque organ spoke with great distinction throughout and greater presence than usual, so here’s a special shout-out to Jacobson. Hudson was consistently magnificent in her prominent work, playing alongside bassist Robbie Link in many crucial passages. The violas played from strength, but in truth, everyone did, and for reasons not altogether clear, the orchestra sound seemed at once transformed, based on memories of previous performances in this venue: was it merely exceptional attention to detail in what everyone knew were Wynkoop’s last readings of this score, or did the renovations of the Chapel that were completed last year (in which the acoustics of the place were said to have been put back like they had been before several “fixes” intended to tame the room’s reverberation) actually make a difference* – or was it a combination of the two? (We sat very close to the artists, and this listener found the sound cleaner, clearer, more transparent than ever before. That said, my companion found much of the choral sound mushy and distant, even from up close, with heavy reverb echoing back over the cavernous space.)

Messiah is a choral work, of course, so we dare not overlook the Duke Chapel Choir, roughly 100 voices, singing more or less in quartets, an arrangement that demands complete knowledge of the music and absolute confidence from all the singers; the more-or-less qualifier applies because there were considerably more women than men and of the men only 14 tenors were listed in the program. It was particularly gratifying to see so many senior singers in the choir, reflecting most certainly their lasting devotion to their retiring director. Indeed, following the Dean‘s welcome prior to the performance, the president of the choir spoke briefly, noting that these performances were being dedicated by the choir to Wynkoop. The singers indeed gave their all, and they reflected his leadership throughout, right down to the most complex vocal runs and most engaging counterpoint in the most elaborate choruses.

This was a complete performance of Messiah. The “Christmas” portion so often heard is Part I with the Hallelujah Chorus (from the end of Part II) appended for a grand finale. Everyone who loves great music owes it to him- or herself to experience the entire thing in a rock-solid performance at least once, in concert (and particularly as opposed to hearing it as background accompaniment to a masque or dance in which the music is secondary). These performances would have been good picks. More than a few people near us were overheard saying the Saturday afternoon concert was the best they had ever heard. This listener must humbly agree.

From the very first measures of the overture to the familiar account of Christ’s birth to the dark drama of His death to the uplifting joy portrayed in the finale, this was a memorable artistic event, given in what must surely be the region’s most magnificent room, with light streaming through the stained glass windows and cascading down over the banks of red poinsettias. Toscanini spoke of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony as “allegro con brio.” And Toscanini – or was it Mahler, or was it Strauss? – spoke of “tradition” being “the last bad performance.” This Messiah was part of a tradition dating back 85 years. This is the kind of tradition all who value Western culture must celebrate and cherish. Thanks for the memories.

*Or perhaps it was a result of a good cleaning and some polishing. Dr. Wynkoop writes: “During the year of Chapel renovation, it was a high priority to leave the Chapel acoustic as unchanged as possible. Significant time and effort were spent on accomplishing this, but perhaps inevitably the cleaning and polishing that were done resulted in a somewhat livelier and more reverberant acoustic.”

Readers may hear Wynkoop’s remaining December concerts on Dec. 9 and 10 (with the Choral Society of Durham), Dec. 15 (with the Vocal Arts Ensemble), and Dec, 24 (with the Christmas Eve community choir). The latter represents the last opportunity for area singers to experience Wynkoop’s magic first hand – and without having to audition. See the event listing for details. And then see our calendar for additional performances in the spring semester.

(Edited 12/4/17 to incorporate the note about acoustics.)