Handel would approve

Through the snow and other adversities to a just-right performance of Messiah at Town Hall.
Through the snow and other adversities to a just-right performance of Messiah at Town Hall.

Saturday night, while the snow was pouring radiantly from the skies, I joined 170 other intrepid souls to hear the Town Hall performance, in historically correct style, of Handel's Messiah. It was splendid, made a little more so by all the tribulations of pulling off a concert like this in weather like this. Bravo and thanks to Town Hall for such a wonderful Christmas present.

A year ago, the good folks at Town Hall (where I used to work) decided to revive the annual performance of Handel's beloved masterpiece, using the Tudor Choir and Seattle Baroque Orchestra to make the work sound the way it would have been for Handel's time. A big turnout in 2007 encouraged the producers to think bigger for this year. They will have paid a financial price, owing to the snow for both performances and the growing competition from the Seattle Symphony's numerous performances. Snow meant some rehearsals were truncated, and one of the soloists had such difficulty with the airlines that she had to make her performance into a "rehearsal."

So the performance had a special, nervous edge to it — the kind that often makes fine musicians come through grandly, as they did. What we heard is a revelation to those who find the usual performances of Messiah to be mushy and forced. Instead you have a slender orchestra of 19, led from first violin by Ingrid Matthews — a band so transparent and springy that the sole bassoon becomes a clearly heard foundation to the music. Similarly lean and virile was the 14-voice chorus, beautifully trained by Doug Fullington to produce a Renaissance-like wall of sound. I wanted to hug those three heroic, ringing tenors afterward. To this was added ardent, operatic singing by the soloists, especially Portland soprano Amanda Jane Kelley, sweetly pure as a recorder, and Issaquah tenor Ross Hauck.

I thought the performance started a little cautiously, reflecting the nerves of not having full rehearsals. But then it took off, getting louder, looser, more passionate, more beautifully fitted to the intimate acoustics of Town Hall — exactly the place for such musical forces. The audience loved it, as did, I am told, the somewhat larger one the next afternoon. Who cared if the snow was piling up outside?

My appreciation for all this was deepened by knowledge of the risk all were taking. Tudor Choir, a glory of the region, has sharply curtailed its performances in the past year. Seattle Baroque Orchestra is struggling and regrouping. Town Hall is doing fine, with upwards of 400 events per year, but it too is a mid-sized organization with little margin for things like snowstorms and major recessions.

"Though attendance was less than projected," says Wier Harman, the executive director of Town Hall, "we're going to do everything we can to keep this tradition alive at Town Hall into the future." Handel, who knew a thing or two about scrambling to get his music on stage and to hold together opera companies, would commend that spirit. I saw him smiling all that snowy, magical night.


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