Thursday, November 6, 2008

Handel Weekend

It's a bit late to take notice of this, but last weekend the Symphony Chorus did its thing and, as usual, I'm here to tell about it.

The first half of the program was a freebie for the singers. Guest conductor Nicholas McGegan conducted Mendelssohn's Fair Melusine Overture and Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante. The first uses pure music to dramatize, in rich Romantic fashion, the story of a woman who is cursed to become a water sprite at night. The second called upon four soloists - Alison Harney, violin; Melissa Brooks, cello; Andrew Gott, bassoon; and Barbara Orland, oboe - for a merry conversation with the orchestra and, particularly in the middle movement, amongst themselves. All of these soloists are attractive, young members of the orchestra, none of them first-chairs; so it was a nice opportunity for some of the less conspicuous talent in the Symphony to shine.

After the intermission, the chorus trooped onstage and joined in with Handel's Ode for Saint Cecilia's Day. This was a piece celebrating music itself, based on a poem by John Dryden that depicts music as the force that knits the whole creation together, and that has many other powers besides. It was wonderful to do this piece with Nic McGegan, who has conducted us before, and who is a world-class specialist in Handel's operas and oratorios. He achieves a remarkable degree of musical sensitivity and detail without seeming to push for it, and his batonless conducting style is full of infectious joy.

The chorus only sang in three numbers out of over a dozen. So we had plenty of time to sit and enjoy Handel's overture, minuets, and march for orchestra, plus a succession of spectacular arias sung by soprano Laura Claycomb and tenor Thomas Cooley. Both singers had a clear, beautiful tone, astounding agility, and the ability to combine note-perfect accuracy with deeply expressive musicality. I understand at secondhand that our local music reviewer, a.k.a. hatchet-job-specialist, said otherwise. But I was there. I know whereof I speak. And, not to put too fine a point on it, the Post-Dispatch's Sarah Bryan Miller is full of crap.

St. Cecilia is a forerunner of Messiah, an oratorio in miniature with all the same kinds of pleasure in it. It had slow arias, furnishing the orchestra's own with opportunities to shine in obbligato solos, such as principal cellist Daniel Lee (whose poetry earned him a roar at curtain-call time), flautist Mark Sparks (who took away the laurel for the best cadenza of the night), and trumpeter Susan Slaughter (always able to achieve seemingly supernatural effects with her horn). The orchestra also came equipped with several continuo instruments, including a two-rank portative organ (which had its own solo at one point), a harpsichord, and an enormous lute-like instrument known as the theorbo which, I found, makes an effective fill-in for the old "Is that a ___ in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?" joke.

So with all this spectacular musicianship and musical novelty onstage, the chorus had to work hard to be noticed at all. We were noticed, though. At least, it was said of us that you could understand the text, which doesn't sound like much but it really takes a lot of work. And in the parking lot after Sunday's matinee performance, an older lady from the audience told me it was the most spectacular thing she had heard us sing since...what was that piece we did last year? I suggested Haydn's Creation, but she said no; I suggested Fidelio, but she said no; I grudgingly suggested Carmina Burana, and she said: "That's it! That was just wonderful!"

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