Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Apollo Chorus at Symphony Center in Handel's "Messiah"

by Dwight Casimere

Since its premiere performance in Dublin in 1742,George Frideric Handel's oratorio "Messiah" has been performed around the world as an annual rite of passage into the Christmas Holiday Season. Famously, according to legend, King George of England was so moved that he stood during the singing of the "Hallelujah" chorus at the conclusion of Part Two and the practice has become customary to this day.

Performances of the work are a holiday staple at churches around the city, from the Presbyteries of north Michigan Avenue to the Baptist sanctuaries of South King Drive. Of all, none is more revered than the performances of the Apollo Chorus of Chicago, which has presented Messiah since 1879.

Orchestra Hall has been the scene of 137 of the choir's presentations over the work's 131-year history in Chicago.

Music Director and Conductor Stephen Alltop, a veteran of 13 Messiah's assembled a stellar quartet of soloists to tackle Handel's demanding oratory, Irish soprano Maire O’Brien, a star of New York City Opera and the Kennedy Center, American mezzo Lauren McNeese, recently of Los Angeles Opera, the brilliant young tenor Mark Van Arsdale, the hit of the 2009 Tanglewood Festival in Don Giovanni under Maestro James Levine and the leonine baritone James Maddalena, best known for his portrayal of the title role in the World Premiere of John Adam's Nixon in China, directed by Peter Sellars. I almost don't need to continue writing a review for you to know that this was a transcendent experience.

King George must have felt as I did, when I stood at the start of the Hallelujah chorus from my center box seat. The music is that stirring. The deft conducting of Maestro Alltop and his superb collaborators made it even more so.

Alltop kept tempos brisk, without rushing, paying particular attention to Handel's nuances of tempo restraint and tonal color.

The Apollo Chorus is one of the seminal wonders of the music world. The individual members of each vocal section partner so well, that they sing as one voice. Their breathing almost indistinguished from one phrase to the next. Alltop finished each section with a burnish, like a crafter of fine English carpentry who polishes the seams to such a finish that the joiner work is invisible to the eye.

Among the orchestra members, principal Bass Jerry Fuller provided a firm, fluid line for Handel's lilting contrapuntal melodies to soar above. Principal Timpani Vadim Karpinos provided bright tonality and rhythmic precision throughout and added a ringing punctuation to the finale. Concertmaster and First Violin Jeri-Lou Zike provided heartfelt solos and support for an absolutely captivating duet with soprano O'Brien in the Part Three aria "If God be for us, who can be against us?" It was like two beautiful tropical birds in flight. Add to that, Zike's visual appeal; dressed in a sleeveless gown, she has the best-looking arms this side of Michelle Obama!

Handel used the darker voices of the alto and baritone to convey his deeper message. In Part One's Aria, "For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth," baritone Maddelena navigated Handel's difficult minefields of lengthy, complex, intervaled phrases and runs with the skill of an infantryman in combat. Sadly, he seemed almost ready to be cut down in the heat of battle by the H1N1 virus in the Part Three showpiece Aria "The trumpet shall sound." His vocal chords began to constrict. Turning red-faced, he fought mightily against the intrusion. He managed to regain his footing and reached the conclusion with the flourish of principal Robert Rieder's sylvan trumpet ringing in the background.

In my childhood, I had a favorite aunt who took me with her every year to see her perform Handel's Messiah in the Alto section of our Lutheran Church Choir. Sadly, a violent intruder took her from my family some thirty years ago. I thought of her as the choir began the beautiful counterpoint to the concluding Amen. She would have loved to be singing it with them and, in my mind's eye; I think I might have heard her.

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