Since this is an arts journal, little more is needed than the title – and some awareness of the season. November 27 was the First Sunday in Advent, and while it was only three days after Thanksgiving, it was the start of “the season.” Messiah is, of course, Handel’s best known and most popular English oratorio. It’s a staple of what we call, in the Bible Belt at least, the Christmas season. The sections of the oratorio most often heard – Part 1, dealing with Christmas, plus the “Hallelujah Chorus” – are singularly appropriate to this time in the church year. The rest of Messiah points toward Easter, and it was in the Easter season that it was first performed. We don’t hear it much then anymore. Perhaps it’s another variation on the tail-wagging-the-dog. And that we hear it so often, when there are so many other wonderful oratorios by Handel, all of them – without exception – awash in grand and glorious music, well, it makes one wonder why. Maybe it’s a combination of the music, those King James Biblical texts, and the fact that so many of us grow up singing (or playing) Messiah. In a very real sense, it helps put Christ back into Christmas, as someone once said – and it does so far more emphatically than any other holiday music – more so than Amahl and the Night Visitors, the Menotti classic, in which the Christ-child plays a dominant role, and far more so than, say, Nutcracker, the ubiquitous Tchaikovsky ballet that for the dance world is an even bigger cash cow than Messiah is for the music folks. It’s a fact that if one wants a stage work other than Amahl that has strong Christmas themes, it’s got to be Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve or the intensely tragic Werther by Massenet, in which the children work on a Christmas song while death prepares to run its course elsewhere.

So there are lots of Messiahs, and many of the presenters give ’em every year. (We’ll review one of these long-standing ones next week.) But in the capital, regular productions are not so common. As a result, when Raleigh’s biggest and best choir, the North Carolina Master Chorale, announced a small-scale version, using 40 vocalists, singing in quartets, with soloists coming from the ranks of the choir, and with an orchestra of half that number, it seemed a sure bet that the venue – Meymandi Concert Hall – would be packed. Not so. (One could speculate why.) But those who were there heard what was without question the finest, most even, most beautiful performance of the virtually-complete score ever, in the capital. (This is certifiably the case because the first truly complete performance here was really not all that long ago.)

Alfred E. Sturgis conducted. He knows this music, and there’s nothing routine in the way he prepares and leads it. By using his own choral singers for the solos,* he was able to prepare for and elicit stylistic consistency among the featured vocalists that mirrored and complemented the work of the choir. The soloists were beautifully even and matched, and their tasteful ornamentations were clearly inspired by a common vision of the score. Their diction and that of the chorus could hardly have been better. The chorus sang with incisiveness and precision, breathtaking articulation, and attention to phrasing and dynamics that allowed virtually every word to be heard clearly. Adding to the sonic focus and impact was a small, four-section shell, positioned just behind the risers. And the orchestra? Well, this was a modern band, but the diminished forces and the excellence of all the players – like the soloists and the chorus – made for an exceptional afternoon. The organ was a small electronic thing that made itself felt in all the right places and added appropriate depth without ever attracting undue attention to itself – hats off to keyboardist Susan Lohr. And kudos, too, to trumpet virtuoso Don Eagle, cellist Lisa Marie Ferebee, bassist Winston Budrow, bassoonist Michael Burns, oboists Lois Schultz and Amanda LeBrecque, second trumpet Van Zimmerman, and the always radiant strings, headed by concertmaster Margaret Partridge. Yes, this orchestra includes some of the very finest players for miles around, and it was good, very good.

One would be hard-pressed to pick out a handful of exceptional numbers, so good were all of them – seriously – but that best-known of the best-known, the “Hallelujah Chorus,” stood out for its freshness, brilliance, and verve – it was similar to the effect of peeling off darkened varnish from an Old Master painting.

From start to finish, the performance was brisk but never seemed rushed – these virtuoso artists could handle it (no pun intended). Of 53 numbers, only one was omitted; most of the repeats were skipped. The bottom line was, however, a virtually complete Messiah in an acoustically-superior venue, nicely done up for the season with wreaths and garlands, that got the happy listeners out in a tad under two-and-a-half hours, including a single intermission.

Again, it was without question one of the best Messiahs this listener has ever heard, period. It will more than tide us over ’til the next time.

Everyone should hear a complete professional version at least once.

But before then, how about one of the (many) other wonderful Handel oratorios?

Note: The NCMC holiday season continues with a more traditional Christmas concert on December 13. For details, see our calendar.

*The solo singers, arrayed by voice type and given here in order of appearance, were Abra Carroll Nardo, Sarah Dempsey, and Leanne Glasgow, sopranos, Carol Ingbretsen, Evelyn McCauley, and Megan Gray, altos, Wade Henderson, James Farlow, and David Wiehle, tenors, and David Mellnik and Lewis Moore, basses.