During public comments when he was a candidate for music director of the Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra, Robert Moody talked about his beginnings as a choral conductor and his abiding love for the great choral literature. His reputation as an effective and imaginative leader of the Brevard Music Festival’s choral program had preceded him. Now in his third year as the W-SSO’s music director, Moody organized his first series of two performances of that holiday essential, the Messiah of George Frederic Handel.

The work has not been part of the orchestra’s regular repertoire. Winston-Salem has had a long tradition of free Messiah performances presented by The Mozart Club. These are in the huge choral force tradition. Moody’s performance reflected modern musicology by using 48 choristers and by subtly deploying a chamber orchestra from the symphony. His tempos were faster than those heard in older style approaches. Symphony officials worried if enough people would shell out $10 to $40 to hear a work they could hear for free. They need not have. From my perch in the East transept, most of Centenary United Methodist Church appeared to be packed.

Moody’s forces were arrayed before the pulpit. The 48 choristers, drawn from the cream of local church choirs, were arranged on two risers. Between them was a chamber organ played by James Jones. Between him, and the podium, was Wake Forest University’s fine pianist Peter Kairoff who played harpsichord continuo. Its lovely lute stop was frequently joined by Beth Vanderborgh’s burnished continuo cello. First and second violins were arranged antiphonally left and right of the conductor. The double bass and timpani were behind first violins. The two oboists and bassoonist were seated between first violins and the left choral riser. Trumpeters Anita Cirba and Kenneth Wilmot were highly mobile. During #17, Chorus: “Glory to God in the highest,” the trumpeters faced each other across the transept balconies, creating a wonderful spatial effect. Otherwise they were seated behind the second violins. The fine and well-matched four vocal soloists were lined up on either side of the conductor with coloratura soprano Tracy Dahl and bass Troy Cook on Moody’s left. while mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand and tenor William Ferguson were on his right.

Although from my seat half the choir and orchestra were hidden from view, I basked in one of the most joy-filled performances of a major choral work I have ever heard. Both the members of the choir and the orchestra smiled frequently, clearly delighted with their singing or playing. No one beamed with shear enthusiasm more than Moody himself as the performance “got its groove” and often bounced along on Handel’s vital rhythms. Both singers and musicians responded instantly to Moody’s refined adjustments of dynamics or expression. Ornaments were deployed with taste and style by everyone. Full appreciation of the vocal soloists was hampered somewhat by the fact they were projecting into the nave of the sanctuary at a 90 degree angle to me. Never-the-less there was much about their singing to be relished.

All the vocal soloists and the chorus displayed outstanding diction. Every word could be clearly heard, even in choral passages with several parts intertwining. Tenor William Ferguson sang with a warm, winning timbre and great expressivity. His sustained tone in aria #3: “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted” was gorgeous. Mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand has a lovely, dark lower range while her voice is even and flexible across its compass. This dusky quality enhanced such texts as aria #23: “He was despised and rejected of men.” Her vocal pliancy was well shown in the aria #20: “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd.” Among soprano Tracy Dahl’s repertoire is the stratospheric role of Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. There was a précis cutting, almost instrumental quality to her singing. She was especially effective in aria #18: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” and in aria #32: “But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell.” Her aria #45:” I know that my redeemer liveth” was movingly phrased, supported by the solo violin of Concertmistress Corine Brouwer. Baritone Troy Cook never lacked for power in projection or a balanced sound with a warm tone. His pacing of aria #6:” But who may abide the day of His coming” and aria #40: “Why do the nations so furiously rage together” were ideal. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the recitative sequence #47: “Behold, I tell you a mystery,” followed by his aria #48: “The trumpet shall sound” which found Cook’s dark, clarion voice paired with Anita Cirba’s brilliant solo trumpet playing. It was an exalted culmination. Bravo!

Handel’s oratorios evolved as an easy-to-present money-maker using his opera forces during the Lenten season when the opera houses were forced to be closed. Although only Part I of Messiah is applicable to the Christmas season, it has become firmly established with that holiday. While Moody’s Messiah performances ought to become a new Winston-Salem tradition, I hope it will not prevent presentation of more apt choral works such as L’Enfance du Christ by Hector Berlioz.