Dallas — Early music auteur James Richman led the Dallas Bach Society in a successfully period sensitive performance of G. F. Handel’s Messiah Wednesday night at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center.
Undertaking the recreation of a 274-year-old masterwork on baroque instruments is a precious and daunting exercise by any standard. When late 19th century choral societies were gargantuan by today’s standards, musicologist Ebenezer Prout posited that attempts to emulate baroque performance practice were “foredoomed to failure.” This type of peculiar endeavor compels the musician/historian to consider many things. Instrument tones were less rich then. Musicians had no concept of the modern conductor. Most of all the baroque imagination was pre-enlightenment. Narrative development was driven not by logical elegance but by elaborate detail and intense contrast.
Ensembles in Handel’s day were similar in size to the Dallas Bach Society’s Wednesday evening. An intimate continuo of strings and harpsichord, about two dozen, and a couple of oboes might have belied the oratorio’s depth of content. But attention to an exquisite treatment of this music’s setting only served to magnify its impact.
Messiah describes scenes in the life of Christ starting with prophesies of his coming. Tenor Derek Chester brought the recitative “Comfort Ye My People” warmth and confidence. To free sinners of their impurities, countertenor Nicholas Garza cleanly sang of a burning refiner’s fire in the aria “But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?” The flexible and adept choir sang the choruses “And He Shall Purify” and “For Unto Us a Child is Born” with dignified precision, and grace. Bass Curtis Streetman was also featured.
Handel sets the scene for the angel Gabriel’s annunciation of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds with the symphonic “Pastoral.” In this instrumental an underlying drone supports a simple pipe tune depicting the abiding shepherds, as the soprano narrates, “…keeping watch over their flock by night.” True to oratorio style soprano Anna Fredericka Popova did not over dramatize the action. Her shining buoyant tone caressed difficult passages in the aria “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion.”
Closing the first Christmas portion of the Messiah, “His Yoke is Easy, and His Burthen is Light” presents a virtuosic hurdle. But the nimble choir made the challenging chorus sound easy and it’s title intentionally symbolic.
The second portion covering Christ’s death and resurrection opens on a scene of brutal suffering with the chorus “Behold the Lamb of God.” Handel takes us right to Golgotha and through the dry colored orchestra’s minor accented double-dotted rhythms shows us a flagellating whip. The triptych of choruses “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs,” “And With His Stripes We Are Healed,” and “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray” cover the gamut of pain, stubbornness and grace. The choir managed all three with committed aplomb.
From this point in the oratorio to the end, most performances of the Messiah will cut out certain solos and choruses not essential to the story and manage to send the audience home at a decent hour. But the Dallas Bach Society is the only group in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area to perform the entire masterwork start to finish. This is a three-hour undertaking and other than an intermission the only time to stretch one’s legs is during the “Hallelujah” chorus.
Perhaps to shorten the evening’s endeavor most tempi were decidedly faster than the composer’s indications. The quickness on the bass aria “Why Do the Nations” emphasized the lyric “furiously rage together” but the moment was lost due to the soloist’s facial exaggerations and spastic embellishments. These sins were absolved in a moment by choir’s spectacular execution of “Let Us Break Their Bonds.”
It was a delight to see and hear a baroque trumpet on “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” Think a bugle with holes along the sides covered by the player’s fingertips like an ocarina. Amazing to witness a rare feat of delicacy and daring pulled off with such accuracy.
The final and massive fugue to close the chorus “Worthy is the Lamb the was Slain” ended a long night with stamina and exhilaration.
Of all the dozens of opportunities to hear Handel’s Messiah during the holiday season the Dallas Bach Society’s is the definitive standard.
» The Dallas Bach Society presents a sing-along Messiah at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11 at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. And it does "A German Baroque Christmas" at 8 p.m. Dec. 19, also at Church of the Incarnation.