Dallas — Let’s call it the “Bach Society Bounce.” That was the secret sauce that Dallas Bach Society Artistic Director James Richman brought to the society’s annual performance of Handel’s Messiah on Dec. 23. It was energetic, musically astute, and historically accurate, only slightly marred by the somewhat oversized Meyerson Symphony Center.
In general, this was one of the most enjoyable performances of this iconic work that I have ever experienced. Too oft overblown and turgid, this was a Messiah that was light on its feet and, well…, “bounced.” Adding to the agility and clarity of this alert performance, Richman’s perky pace was relatively consistent throughout — if allowing for the tempo difference created by time signatures. Further, Richman used forces that resembled the small number of performers that sang the 1742 premiere: 25 singers, harpsichord, and a small Baroque orchestra playing on period instruments. So, turgid and overblown it was not. I left the hall energized by what I had heard.
Overall, the diction of chorus and soloists was excellent. So much so that few were following the words in the program, even though the lights in the hall were at the proper level and they were printed in a readable. All too frequently, the opposite occurs: words printed in miniscule type and distributed in a darkened theater. However, the printed words increased in value during some of the more unfamiliar choruses.
The performers on the period instruments were uniformly excellent. Intonation, usually their biggest bugaboo, was outstanding, as was the balance and blend. Even the notoriously recalcitrant valveless trumpets sounded out clearly without any of the brashness of the modern version of the instrument. The chorus sounded wonderful, displaying and excellent sense of ensemble. They delivered all of the coloratura work with accuracy and élan. Best yet, the fugal parts were transparent enough to allow the listener to follow each of the voices as they made their way through the complex contrapuntal writing.
The soloists, however, were uneven. Male alto Daniel Bubeck was the least satisfactory. Contributing to his troubles, many sections were too low for his hollow falsetto voice. Soprano Haley Sicking displayed a lovely lyric voice and sure technique. But neither singer remembered that Handel wrote this oratorio in his Italian opera style. They delivered little in interpretative colorings of the words, which range from brutality to reassurance as the story plays out.
Baritone David Grogan, with his burnished, deep voice, was resonant and communicative. Tenor Scott Cameron's bright instrument and breath control amazed from his first moments. Both brought different vocal deliveries as demanded by Handel’s dramatic writings and communicated the meaning of every phrase.
I was hesitant about attending another Messiah, but this performance was anything but standard fare. Most remarkably, the three hours, which can feel endless, passed so quickly that I had to double check my watch.
My standard objection to performing this Easter piece at Christmastime has obviously influenced no one and I remain a scratchy voice, crying in the wilderness. The Christmas part, which is sometimes thankfully extracted, is only one of three sections of the oratorio that covers the entire life of Jesus. Hearing the entire work at this time of year is like reading the first chapter of an Agatha Christi novel, or any other page-turner, and then skipping to the final pages to see how it turns out. Nevertheless, performances of every sort continue to proliferate at this time of year, from small church choirs to mammoth sing-alongs.
But few offer such a satisfactory experience as the Dallas Bach Society.