Even before the concert proper began, the unmistakable sound of period instruments tuning together set off a palpable wave of excitement among the audience filling Town Hall on Saturday nightl.
Seattle hardly lacks for opportunities to indulge the annual holiday ritual of taking in a performance of Messiah. But the occasion marked the revival of a special tradition. It was the first time the Seattle Baroque Orchestra and Tudor Choir rejoined forces for their interpretation of Handel's beloved oratorio after a long hiatus (their pattern of yearly performances at St. Mark's Cathedral had been discontinued early in the decade owing to economic constraints).
Both groups are highly respected elements in Seattle's thriving early-music scene. That's of course no guarantee of smooth sailing, and the first part of the program took some time to gain momentum and personality. Not that there was ever any hint of the routine to their reading–these musicians are far too interesting to allow that–but the work seemed at first to be pulling in several directions, lacking an overall sense of coherence. Part of this was undoubtedly the result of an unusual division of labor: Ingrid Matthews, concertmaster and director of Seattle Baroque Orchestra, led the ensemble for the instrumental and vocal soloist numbers, while the Tudor Choir's director Doug Fullington conducted the choruses.
The orchestra was missing a certain degree of dramatic focus in the Sinfony (Overture) and several of the more elaborately contrapuntal numbers, while at the same time enchanting the ear with particularly deft, expressive articulations, and the give-and-take between the solo singers and orchestra had plenty of rich local detail. The period oboes of Darlene Franz and Scott Pollack and Anna March's bassoon added a delightful, fresh palette and were superbly balanced with the ensemble. The operatic aspect of Handel's writing in Messiah (a source of controversy in his own time) meanwhile suddenly came to the fore with "The People that walked in Darkness."
A more evenly matched selection of vocal soloists might have also improved the issue of unity. The well-known early-music specialist Emily Van Evera contributed a soprano of almost childlike innocence yet was surprisingly nonchalant about phrasing and diction. Melissa Plagemann, filling in on short notice, had an attractively expressive mezzo but was too technically insecure to support her bottom range. Tenor William Hite sang with eloquence and imaginative ornamentation, and Nathaniel Watson made for an especially imposing presence in his theatrically conceived baritone numbers.
After a bit of initial stiffness in his phrasing, Fullington was able to relax into more flexible and fluid tempos, and the most consistently appealing showing of the performance came from his 13-voice Tudor Choir (4 sopranos, 3 altos, 3 tenors, and 3 basses). Their sound was characterized by a seamless blend across the ranges and a marvelous clarity of texture. Fullington deployed this to full advantage. The proportions of chorus to the 19-member orchestra allowed for a floating, lucid, clean transparency even in the most powerfully weighted tutti of "For unto us" and the Hallelujah chorus. It was possible to be captivated by new colors, however taken for granted this music is. The clean Town Hall acoustics helped accentuate this clarity.
What made this Messiah especially memorable was the dramatic focus that finally arrived in the second half, where Matthews and Fullington seemed to confirm each other's vision. Messiah may be best known for its expression of hope and triumph, but Handel's score also contains a miniature Passion within its scope. I can't recall hearing another live performance that brought out the gravity and dark emotions of Part Two so vividly. "He was despised" and the chorus "And with his stripes" were almost expressionist in their disorienting evocations of pain. The Town Hall setting made it easy to observe the musicians' own reactions, which became an important aspect of the performance. What's more, the abysmal gloom Messiah encompasses was evenly matched with a sense of hard-won confidence in the rousing accounts of "The Trumpet shall sound" (featuring Brian Chin in the treacherous obbligato) and "Worthy is the Lamb." The final fugal "Amen" unfolded like a serenely chanted, transporting "Om."