Fort Worth — If Fort Worth is the city of cowboys and culture then the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s annual presentation of G. F. Handel’s oratorio Messiah is an impressive round up of baroque stock.
An annual holiday custom, some 274 years old, played itself out Monday night at Bass Performance Hall. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and the Southwestern Seminary Master Chorale, led by David Thye, performed the time-tested Christmas ritual in grand fashion.
Though not written to be a yuletide soundtrack it is probably the most performed piece of classical music in history. A herald of the holidays for some, musical fruitcake to others, the Messiah is a reflection on the life of Christ in unstaged song.
The Christmas portion is the first of three parts and the most famous. Using biblical scripture as libretto, Messiah begins with prophesy of Christ’s birth from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Tenor Ben Caston foretold of the evening’s beautiful music with the recitative and aria “Comfort Ye My People” and “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted.” The balance of emotion and traditional performance practice in the arias were not always copasetic. Though radiant, soprano Jennifer Chung flirted with the line between operatic acting and baroque oratory, occasionally stepping over it.
Robert August’s sensitive harpsichord treatments showed influence of his collaboration with Messiah scholar Christopher Hogwood. Though once, his genteel pluckings had a dubious duet with the pig squeal of an audience member’s hearing aid.
Most tabernacle-like choruses were deftly sung. The thunderbolt strokes of “wonderful, counselor, the mighty God” in the chorus “For Unto Us a Child is Born” rang with seasonal joy. “He Trusted in God” benefited from lively staccatos and did not suffer from common pitfalls of the amateur chorus like sagging intonation on descending passages, strident tenors, and sopranos who refuse to blend. Other choruses did. The tempi were sometimes faster than could be accurately sung. “His Yoke is Easy” and “Let Us Break Their Bonds Asunder” are notoriously difficult to sing and were left off the program perhaps for time constraints.
The second part considers Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection relying heavily not on the Gospels but, since these are sung, on the Psalms. The chorus “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs” profoundly conveyed the dread of sin. Representation of Christ’s resurrection was sufficiently forte, allegro and in the stratosphere during “Lift Up Your Heads O Ye Gates.” Though the rising, and slightly flatting, high notes did pictorialize ascension they also exposed the insufficience of human flesh.
This was not one of the thousands of Messiah sing-alongs found in this country and the western world. However, the audience knew their part. Just as King George II of England rose to his feet at the beginning of the “Hallelujah” chorus during its London premiere, so too did the crowd from Cowtown. Is there any audience participation tradition in classical art more enduring?
The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra had a fine night and, on a side note, would do well to have the support of a public who chose to donate well.