Handel’s Messiah is for choruses what Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is for American dance companies, which is to say it’s an oft’ overstuffed member of the bovine ilk that produces cash in lieu of dairy products. For better or worse, it’s inconceivable to contemplate a Christmas season (I use the term advisedly) without these artistic masterworks turning up somewhere, in some sort of holiday garb. At this time of the year, Messiah – of which only the first part concerns Christ’s nativity, and which was premiered during (and indeed far better suits) the Easter season – is often truncated, yielding numerous presentations of the so-called “Christmas portion,” capped by the “Hallelujah” Chorus (which comes at the end of Part II). Among these are lots of do-it-yourself sing-alongs, variously augmented with soloists and instrumental accompaniments.

That it is one of the great choral works of all time is undeniable, and never mind the fact that Handel wrote many other estimable and impressive English oratorios. Handel festivals put them on from time to time, and such efforts are almost invariably rewarding – for singers and audiences alike; it would be a treat and surely an eye-opener, too, to have someone hereabouts undertake something else – anything else – every now and then!* But we review what’s before us, and the first weekend in December, for as long as most of us can recall, has been the time for the Duke Chapel Choir‘s annual performances – there are three of them, all virtually sold out – of Messiah, in Duke Chapel. (Unlike Christmas parades, this can’t be before Thanksgiving, ’cause the banks of poinsettias and the wreaths and the crèches aren’t in place till the first Sunday in Advent….)

Complete performances of Messiah are considerable undertakings, so one-off productions are relatively rare. That leaves the regulars, the purveyors of “annual” Messiah concerts. Among those regulars this season are Duke and the Winston-Salem Symphony (for details of which, see our Triad calendar; we’ll cover it in these pages in due course). Both are presided over by superior artistic leaders, and both are backed by hand-picked orchestras of exceptional ability. Folks in the Triangle and Eastern NC who seek the experience of Messiah can hardly go wrong with Duke’s, which has the advantage of a stunning venue; readers farther west might just as happily choose Winston-Salem’s.

For Duke’s three performances this year, the solo honors were entrusted to Lisa Saffer, soprano, Martha Hart, mezzo-soprano, Dann Coakwell, tenor, and Christòpheren Nomura, baritone. These vocalists sang from a raised platform just a few feet from the front row of the audience. The 100-voice Duke Chapel Choir was arrayed (in quartets!) on risers behind the 25-member orchestra, which was headed this year by violinist Eric Pritchard (of the Ciompi Quartet). Chapel Organist David Arcus was credited as the continuo artist – he alternated between harpsichord and one of Duke’s splendid little positif organs – but he was hardly the only stellar player: among the others were cellist Virginia Hudson, bassist Robbie Link, oboists Lois Schulz and Carrie Schull, bassoonist Michael Burns, timpanist John Hanks, and Don Eagle and Van Zimmerman, trumpets. Although these artists all played modern instruments, the size of the orchestra was more or less “authentic,” and the tempi and vocal ornamentations were informed by current scholarship.

Rodney Wynkoop, Duke’s outstanding choral czar, conducted. No one knows the quirky Duke Chapel acoustics better than he, and over the years he’s become better and better at the game of taming the room’s long reverb (or, to put that another way, minimizing its effects). This year, the sound seemed better, clearer, and, often, more transparent than ever before.

The solo artists were excellent. There’s almost no ensemble work for them, and only a couple of times do they sing with (or lead into) the chorus, so there’s ample opportunity to assess their skills. There was some admirable ornamentation from all of them, with the repeats of the “A” sections of the “ABA” arias for the most part distinctly different from their initial statements. The soprano came across as the most effervescent of the lot, although she seemed more anchored to the score than the others; her involvement sometimes seemed a bit over the top, but she was secure, vocally. The mezzo is a mezzo (as opposed to an alto or contralto), so she was able to soar impressively in the upper registers; the conductor, ever mindful of balance issues, restrained the orchestra as needed when her part lay low. The lyric tenor was fine in all respects. The baritone was remarkably good, infusing his lines with emotion, drama, mystery, and – always – immense dignity. The soprano’s diction was sometimes a little indistinct, although she warmed to her work as the oratorio progressed; the others did very well with the words throughout.

The choral ensemble was tip-top. It helped that they sang from the Chapel crossing, rather than from the more-removed stalls; their sound was clear and crisp, and they did well with the words, too.

There wasn’t anything to complain about among the instrumentalists, although the generally splendid brass players managed to swamp their colleagues (and the singers) here and there. The little organ didn’t provide the room-shaking sonic depth that we’ve heard on other occasions but everything was in the proper perspective.

As noted, Wynkoop is a master – of choirs, of Chapel acoustics, and, in truth, of Handel. There were parts of this performance that seemed to take on new richness and depth, thanks to his leadership – you could feel him sculpting the music, which is not always the case in Messiah or, for that matter, anything else of its kind. Most of the fast choruses were very fast, and several times speed seemed to overtake clarity, even as heard from the 10th row. (I’m convinced that backing off a few turns in “And he shall purify” – which is, after all, marked “Moderato” in the standard Watkins Shaw edition – and in “Lift up your heads,” “Hallelujah!,” and “Worthy is the lamb” would have resulted in significantly greater moment and meaning, but then the show would have extended a bit beyond three hours….)

Make no mistake – Messiah is a long sit, but it’s a work of such importance that every music lover owes it to himself or herself to experience it at least once. Duke’s standard SATB version is more than worth the trip, and Wynkoop’s renditions are consistently the best in these parts. If you haven’t been to hear Messiah for yourself, put it in your calendar now, for next year. The dates are Friday-Sunday December 3-5, 2010.

*12/11/09 – Editor’s Note: A reader with a long memory prompts us about the following Handel oratorios, in addition to Messiah, given at Duke in the past 15 years: Israel in Egypt (Choral Society of Durham, 1994, & Chapel Choir and Chorale, 2009); Judas Maccabaeus (CSD, 1998); & Jephtha (CSD, 2006). The two that post-date the establishment of CVNC (in 2001) were reviewed in these pages; click here for the 2006 Jephtha and here for the 2008 Israel in Egypt.