TAMPA — The Florida Orchestra entered the holiday season in earnest Friday with Handel's Messiah, one of the most recognizable and feted oratorios in the history of orchestral and choral music, The first of a weekend of performances resurrects a long string of familiar arias and choruses sure to please lovers of baroque music, whether instrumental or sung.
Friday's concert at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts also marked the first time since 2001 in which the orchestra has played the full Messiah with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, who were represented by its ensemble and buttressed by the University of South Florida Chamber Singers.
This coming together of forces befits the work itself, which differed from the composer's two dozen or so other oratorios both in ambition and scope.
Four soloists acquitted themselves well. Colin Balzer wielded a tenor voice like a fencing rapier, and bass-baritone Kevin Deas exuded richness, dignity and an impressive bass floor.
It is no surprise that soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme soared most exquisitely in the highest registers, in the second version of "He shall lead his flock" (transposed for mezzo soprano and soprano); and then in the third part with, "I know that my redeemer liveth," among other shining moments.
Mezzo soprano Lauren Segal was a particularly consistent delight, from, "But who may abide the day of his coming?" in Part One to the sorrowful meditation, "He was despised," which sets up the triumphant "Hallelujah" chorus at the end of Part Two.
Unlike the other oratorios of George Frideric Handel, who was a biblical scholar, Messiah does not focus on one book of the Bible or tell one story. Around 60 percent of the libretto by Charles Jennens comes from the Old Testament or the Book of Common Prayer, yet emphasizes both the birth and resurrection of Jesus. The piece has undergone numerous variations, and Handel himself revised part of the oratorio between its furious composition over three weeks in 1741 and 1750. Messiah was a personal resurrection following a period of seclusion, during which it seemed as though the Italian opera he had exported to England was being mocked, was declining in popularity and thought all but dead. Who knows, really, but it's possible to speculate that the specter of his life's work coming undone brought him to the height of his powers. As described in a pre-concert lecture by guest conductor David Lockington, Messiah covers in three parts the prophesy and birth of Jesus, the crucifixion and resurrection and a meditation about sin and redemption, a day of judgment and the meaning of it all.
Lockington led the orchestra, which consists mostly of strings but with horns featured prominently in a couple of places ("The trumpet shall sound"), with the assurance of a pro who has been conducting this piece for decades.
The Master Chorale, directed by James Bass, demonstrated a sans vibrato loveliness, particularly the sopranos, embodying the composer's phrasings congruently and ending them crisply.
Messiah went off in the Ferguson Hall, owing to the musical Kinky Boots playing in the larger Morsani Hall. Hall size obviously doesn't affect direct sound, the kind that travels from performers to the ear. But it arguably might have affected the reflected sound, which ideally equalizes to create a full aural experience.
Coupled with Messiah's popularity, the choice of venue led to a more immediate issue when Lockington stopped the concert to address the standing-room-only crowd, some of whom had barged in late, speaking loudly as the performance was in progress. Lockington waited minutes before resuming. It was the only bizarre note in an otherwise welcome and well-executed performance.
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