It’s a tradition at Duke, in the lovely Chapel, bedecked at this time of the year with poinsettias and otherwise prepped for the holiday season. It’s also a bit of a risk, in several respects, to do it every year. But Handel’s Messiah is arguably the most popular oratorio in the entire choral canon, and it may well be the best, too, so at least once in a lifetime everyone should hear it in full – as opposed to the more ubiquitous truncated version (consisting of Part I and the Hallelujah Chorus). And one would be hard-pressed to find better or more consistently reliable performances than those done annually at Duke by fine soloists, the Duke Chapel Choir, and a first-rate chamber ensemble brimming with enough talent to head the sections of several outstanding orchestras. For a long time, these readings have been presided over by Rodney Wynkoop, arguably the finest choral person working in the Triangle nowadays, and the concerts are invariably fresh and vibrant and compelling.

This was certainly the case on December 3, when the first of this year’s three performances was presented before a near-capacity house. The soloists included soprano Mary Wilson, making her debut at Duke, mezzo-soprano Margaret Bragle, returning after performances in Durham last year, veteran tenor Karl Dent, and baritone (actually bass-baritone) Christòpheren Nomura, also bowing for the first time as a solo artist in the Chapel. He is a wonderful “find,” and his sonorous, secure delivery was superb throughout. He is specially gifted in oratorio work, for every number seemed to come straight from the heart in an intimate and direct way, as if he were sitting across from the listener in a small room, relating a story in which he had been personally involved. Wilson impressed, too, with a grandly even voice and clear projection. Dent continues to polish his numbers, bringing apparently different ornamentation to his secure lines, many of which rang out with bell-like tones. The mezzo was somewhat less successful in the first section of the work, and she seemed to have some difficulty bridging the chest and head voices, but she was in radiant and dramatic form in Parts II and III.

The chorus provided constant delights. Tradition may put freshness at risk elsewhere, but at Duke there are new singers every year, and for some of them, surely, these concerts will be experiences they will remember all their lives. With 68 women and 41 men (in the published roster), the balance might have been suspect, but Wynkoop massed most of the lower voices at the back, facing out into the Chapel, and for the most part there was more than adequate heft. The Maestro doesn’t mess around with this music; some of the choruses were taken at near-breakneck speeds, making one think that they were almost on the verge…, but in the end the choir didn’t fail him – or Handel.

The orchestra gave particular delight this time. Concertmaster Eric Pritchard (whose name was omitted from the program) and cellist Fred Raimi are half of the Ciompi Quartet, and their work, most noticeable in recitatives but also prominent elsewhere, reflected their years of artistic partnership. Bassist Robbie Link took part in some memorable sections, as did the Duke Messiah crew’s clearly-favorite trumpet player, Don Eagle. There was awesome strength in other parts of the band, too – including several folks who serve other orchestras as concertmasters, people who do lots of chamber music (and this showed throughout the evening), and superior timpani and wind players. Chapel Organist (and harpsichordist) David Arcus provided icing on the musical cake.

Wynkoop never fails to impress, whatever he undertakes, but one wonders how he keeps Messiah fresh. The answer lies in the little changes and enhancements he introduces – slight alterations in tempo, restudied phrasing nuances, and new emphasis here and there, with some rubato to underscore significant points…. This reading seemed fresh and vibrant and compelling – to repeat words from the opening paragraph – in large measure because Wynkoop views the work as a living, breathing entity. Nothing is routine or taken for granted when he is at the helm, and those of us who live in the Triangle are the beneficiaries of his expertise.

The fact that Messiah is for many people more than just an oratorio is of course part of its recurring draw, and it is clear that thousands believe that the Chapel is the region’s best venue for sacred music…. At Duke, one gets the complete work (all 53 numbers!), encompassing the whole story, as Handel intended – Messiah was first presented during Easter week, not during Advent. These are easily the region’s best readings of one of the treasures of Western art music. The holiday season would hardly be complete without them.