NBSO Messiah in review

published in the Standard-Times (New Bedford)

NBSO, singers launch season on wave of glorious music
by Laurie Robertson-Lorant, contributing writer

On Sunday, the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra brought the Thanksgiving weekend to a glorious close with a performance of George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" (Part I and the "Hallelujah Chorus") and Franz Schubert's less well-known "Magnificat in C," a spirited celebration of the Annunciation written in 1815.

Both pieces featured singers from no less than six local choruses — Mastersingers by the Sea, Sine Nomine Choral Ensemble, The Greater New Bedford Choral Society, The Greater Tiverton Community Chorus, The Sippican Choral Society and The South Coast Community Chorale — and four brilliant young soloists: soprano Kristen Watson, alto Deborah Rentz-Moore, tenor Matthew Anderson and bass Andrew Garland, all of whom sang even the most demanding coloratura runs and trills beautifully.

One of the delights of solo singing is the ease with which a soloist can produce subtle variations of dynamics as well as variations of vocal tone and phrasing. Anderson delivered the opening recitative, "Comfort Ye" and the aria "Every valley shall be exalted" with exquisitely modulated vocal tones and perfect clarity of diction, and when he reached the aria's highest notes, he sounded like the angel Gabriel himself. I only wish Handel had written more arias for this outstanding tenor soloist.

The other three soloists sang their much larger allotment of recitatives and arias very beautifully, with alto Rentz-Moore executing the daring slide and ethereal trills demanded by the first aria very gracefully and soprano Watson reaching celestial heights with cloudlike softness and no shrillness. Bass Garland's warm, resonant voice effortlessly brought out the drama inherent in the aria "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." Although at times it was difficult to understand all of the words sung by these three soloists, the words of soprano Watson's recitative "There were shepherds abiding in the field" were perfectly clear, as were the words of alto Rentz-Moore's "Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened" and the alto portion of the aria "He shall feed his flock." The soprano portion of the same aria featured lovely bell-like trills.

Concertmaster Jesse Holstein played the trills Handel wrote for "Glory to God" with spirited sweetness, and the chorus made Handel's opera-inspired arias sound loving and reverent, not portentous. Flawless throughout the performance, the chorus triumphed in "For Unto Us A Child is Born," which was by far the most dramatic and exuberant aria in the entire oratorio. When they sang the word "Wonderful!" it sparkled, and when they sang "And the government shall be upon his shoulders" with proper attention to the dotted rhythm that made the ascending notes seem to be climbing a steep cliff, I couldn't help thinking how the Sisyphean nature of earthly governments (think "fiscal cliff") contrasts with the promised heavenly governance Handel celebrates in this hymn to the Christ Child.

Following a tradition said to date back to the first performance of the oratorio in London, when King George II suddenly rose to his feet as the opening bars of the "Hallelujah Chorus" were played, the audience in New Bedford's gorgeous St. Anthony's "cathedral" rose and remained standing for a sing-along performance of the familiar chorus. Dr. MacKenzie conducted facing the audience and clearly enjoying our enthusiasm for the piece. Although I couldn't tell how many other audience members were singing in addition to my friend and myself, I am sure Sunday's concertgoers were delighted and moved by the performance and very appreciative of St. Anthony's Church, which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its dedication this week.

Fortunately, we don't need to wait a year to be thankful for the talent and hard work of the orchestra and chorus and the talent, hard work and inspired leadership of Music Director MacKenzie and Chorus Master Paul Cienniwa, who is also a master harpsichordist. Overall, this was a performance that made the almost too-familiar "Messiah" sound fresh and new, thanks to the superb musicianship of the conductor, the instrumentalists and the singers.

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