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The Aradia Ensemble: Kevin Mallon Conducting; December 2011
Sunday December 18, 2011
The Dublin Messiah: An Intimate Performance that Places the Onus on Handel's Dramatic Instincts
by Brian Hay
Imagine a performance of 'Messiah' that never has more than thirty three performers on the stage. That was the scene at the performance of the 'Dublin Messiah'. There were fourteen orchestral players, the same number of choral singers, four soloists and the Conductor. Nowhere to hide, no reliance on mass and a definite departure from an established, and honoured tradition. Viewed that way it's a daunting prospect. It can also present opportunities to explore dramatic possibilities that don't often come to the fore. That was the choice Conductor Kevin Mallon opted for and it was easy to see the musicians with him relished the challenge.
The most obvious difference was in the sound of the choral sections. The evenly balanced forces brought a level of pristine clarity to these sections that's almost never heard. The verses were clearly audible. The clarity of the orchestral passages clarified their role in the dramatic shaping of the verses. The absence of oboes placed more emphasis on the string arrangements, especially on the bass lines. That increased the sense of the drive behind the numbers. Good bass lines always do that incidentally, in any musical genre. These were just the beginning of the revelations to come. The smaller forces created a more even balance between the choral and solo numbers as well. Those pieces carried a stronger presence in the overall dramatic effect of the piece as a result.
The singers were more than up to bringing the impact of those pieces to the forefront. Altos Colleen Renihan and Sarah Whelan stepped out from the choir and gave a lovely rendition of 'How Beautiful Are The Feet'. Countertenor Scott Belluz came in as an emergency replacement for the ailing Maria Soulis * and he excelled. His voice has a rich texture and his sense of dramatic shading is impeccable. He captured the joyous exultation of 'O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion' with an ease that appeared effortless. His performance of 'He Was Despised' was delivered with an affinity to the music went far beyond that of one called in on short notice to "do a job".
Soprano Virginia Hatfield delivered renditions of 'Rejoice Greatly', O Daughter of Zion' and 'I Know That My Redeemer Liveth' that were radiant in their joy and sublime in their restraint. She was on the spot due to the circumstances as well. She stepped in for the alto singer and took the air, 'If God Be For Us, Who Can Be Against Us, to a state of quiet serenity that suggested she was living the piece as much or more than singing it. Hopefully she sings alto numbers often. The lower part of her vocal range his a silken covering that makes it ravishing to listen to.
Bass Baritone Giles Tomkins brought solemnity and reverence to his work on the 'The People That Walked in Darkness' and 'Thou Art Gone Up On High'. The authority and power he brought to the stunning piece, 'The Trumpet Shall Sound' was staggering. With trumpet playing of David Kjar underpinning both Tomkins singing and the orchestral scoring the effect was magisterial. Tomkins voice is rich with power but possessed of a softness that that leaves it free of any harshness.
Tenor Joseph Schnurr presents songs as if he was an English (or Irish) Bard. With his beautiful voice, excellent range and fabulous technique he has all the obvious tools but he brings something extra to the plate as well. He's an exceptionally expressive singer who makes great effort to engage the audience at any opportunity. When not reading the text he looks directly at a section of the audience and then slowly pans across until forced to look at the text again. It fully engages anyone who feels they've made eye contact with him. He also extends himself forward physically. There's little doubt he'd be reaching out directly but for the need to hold the book. In this production of 'Messiah' the tenor has more time in the spotlight (or at least more numbers to sing) than the other soloists. It's likely that Schnurr's delight in interacting with the audience was a strong factor in casting him.
Reduction of the forces involved didn't undermine the power of this piece in any way. If anything it improved its symmetrical balance. The impact of the work was realized more through the dramatic instincts of Handel than anything else. The subtle nuances he left room for performers to create if they had the will did the rest. Mallon and Company did that. The 'Hallelujah Chorus' was presented without the audience standing in a gesture of respect for a Monarch. It was also presented as a'finale'. Mallon and the players took a short break before taking up the third part. There was a drum roll thrown in after the venal 'Amen'. It was theatrical presentation at its finest. With this Kevin Mallon and the Aradia Ensemble have created a 'Messiah' full in its power yet rich in its intimacy. They've also taken something very old, and, by returning to its origins, brought forth something that feels completely new.
That's a huge achievement and more than enough reason to see 'The Dublin Messiah' whenever the opportunity arises.
* Note: Maria Soulis, as mentioned before had to drop out of the performance due to illness. The links about her are staying though because the video sample on her website shows an artist well worth giving attention to. Hopefully there'll be a chance to see her in the near future.
The performance of the Dublin Messiah took place at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto Ontario on Saturday December 17, 2011. This review was written to convey an impression of what it was like (in this case sheer joy) to be there.
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