Thursday, December 11, 2014

Harford Chorale Impresses with Messiah

‘Tis the season for performances of Handel’s Messiah

Of all the possibilities over the next few weeks, I chose to attend the performance by The Hartford Chorale, featuring musicians from the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in the Mortensen Hall, at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. I was not alone in this decision. In spite of a cold and rainy spell in the region, a huge audience was on hand.

The event, conducted by Music Director Richard Coffey, presented most of the massive score written by Handel. Don’t take this for granted…many performances cut the score to ribbons. The narrative of each of the Oratorio’s three parts was clear in this performance.

The Hartford Chorale astonished. They articulated the tricky English texts with great clarity. The words could always be understood without referring to the program. “And the glory of the Lord” was sung with wave upon wave of sound, and in this music about “revealing” the Chorale revealed colors and textures that often remain hidden.

Coffey is a conductor who can teach through sound itself, and this was a detailed and thoughtful performance. As an example, conductors often focus too much on the presence of subjects in vocal fugues. Occurrences of fugue subjects become highlighted like sentences in a freshman’s textbook. Coffey kept the subjects working within the larger contrapuntal framework, so that we could also hear all the voices around them. The contrapuntal music sounded fresh.

The first significant arrival in Messiah is the chorus “Glory to God.” It is the first time the trumpets play, and Coffey placed the trumpets in the balcony so that we were surrounded by sound. It was a thrilling and memorable moment.

The pacing and dance-like tempos of the movements helped articulate larger patterns in the music, and that is what made the closing of each major section of the work sound so satisfying. Given the complex compositional engineering of this work, every connection needs to be plugged in for the lights to glow. Following tradition, the entire audience stood during the Halleluiah Chorus. It is wonderful to hear an audience spontaneously join in and sing this iconic music, and for a second time during the evening we were enclosed in sound from all directions. People were beaming.

The soloists, soprano Meechot Marrero, mezzo-soprano Kathleen Reveille, tenor Ting Li, and bass-baritone Brad Walker, are from the Yale Opera Program, and these young voices all impressed by filling the hall with  sound. Their musical fluency and vocal presence was uplifting in itself. Walker was particularly impressive during “The trumpet shall sound,” where he brought resonant vocal power and strong conviction to the moment.

But the crowd favorite was Marrero. She sang elegant lines in warm colors and always seemed to edge the right words at the right time. Her coloratura was clean and pitched in the center of each note. She was always convincing. Be on the lookout for opportunities to hear her sing.

The most famous musical moments of Messiah seem ever-present at this time of year. This was the kind of performance that reminds us that the familiar beautiful within our lives can still sparkle.
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