Review: Richmond Symphony ‘Messiah’

George Manahan conducting
with Richmond Symphony Chorus & soloists
Dec. 6, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Leave it to George Manahan, a man of the theater, to remind listeners that George Frideric Handel was a man of the theater.

Manahan, who has worked primarily in opera – lately, as music director of Portland Opera in Oregon – since leaving Richmond in 1998 after 12 years as the symphony’s music director, conducted this year’s performance of “Messiah” with the energy and extroversion you’d expect to experience in an operetta or musical.

Even in the oratorio’s most reverent numbers, such as the alto aria “He was despised” and the soprano aria “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” tempos were straight-ahead and phrasing was stripped of emotive flab. And when Handel summons good cheer or high passion – the chorus “For unto us a child is born” on one hand, the tenor aria “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron” on the other – voices were crisply exclamatory, musical characterizations vivid and pacing generally brisk. Discreet applications of baroque ornamentation did not break musical flow.

Those used to hearing “Messiah” worshipfully rendered in church at Christmas or Easter may have found this performance jarringly upbeat; but even those folks, I suspect, couldn’t resist the sheer aplomb of the production. And those who long for a less liturgical, more dramatic reading of the oratorio were gratified. (The performance would been more dramatically nuanced had 15 mostly contemplative numbers from parts 2 and 3 not been excised.)

The Richmond Symphony Chorus, prepared by Erin Freeman, was in especially fine form, both in vocal technique and character. The massed voices rang out satisfyingly in big choruses such as “And the Glory of the Lord,” “Hallelujah!” and “Worthy is the Lamb,” but the ensemble was at least as impressive in well-defined part-singing in less showy numbers and in a cappella passages.

Richmond Symphony performances of “Messiah” are commonly unsettled stylistically, neither truly baroque nor pseudo-romantic. The orchestra is scaled down to the dimensions of a mid-18th century band, with a bass continuo section of low strings, bassoons, harpsichord and organ, and plays with period-appropriate spare vibrato and ornamenting of phrases. The chorus of 100 or so voices is oversized by period standards. The soloists engaged for these performances usually are opera singers, with luck having some background in baroque opera, but almost always operatic in their treatments of Handel’s arias.

So it was this time. The solo quartet – soprano Suzanne Karpov, mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko, tenor Alexander McKissick and baritone Aleksey Bogdanov – treated most of their recitatives and arias as dramatic orations or soliloquies. Karpov and Mesko exploited the subtleties of their numbers to inject some emotive shading, most effectively in the alto aria-turned-duet “Come unto Him, all ye that labor,” while McKissick and Bogdanov were emphatic and stentorian. The Russian-born baritone, who sounded more like a bass, was a darkly formidable vocal presence – almost as if Scarpia had got religion.

Manahan melded these differently attuned forces into an ensemble conveying much of the style and more of the spirit of “Messiah.” His attention to the continuo section, producing warm, gutsy tonal undergirding to solo numbers, to well-defined, characterful sectional playing and singing, and to careful gradations of choral volume, gave this performance more musical dimension than is usually heard in this annual event.

Manahan is serving as music advisor to the symphony as it auditions prospective music directors this season, and may conduct the orchestra several times next season as the new music director makes the transition into the Richmond post. His alert, accomplished music-making is always welcome.

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