Pacific MusicWorks Gives a Golden Performance of Handel’s “Messiah”

Claire Biringer
Posted on December 21, 2015, 10:38 am
11 mins

I’m going to come right out and say this: I don’t like Handel. The overly stuffy formal structures and frivolous ornamentation of the high Baroque will never top my list. I find the Messiah static and trite, and Handel’s operas no more exciting than the bassline of Pachelbel’s canon. I’ve only found glimpses of redemption in his output, like the moody D minor Sarabande and brief coloratura passages in Giulio Cesare.

If anyone were to sway my Handelian hatred, it is unsurprising that it would be Pacific MusicWorks, the fabulous early music ensemble directed by Grammy-winning conductor and lutenist Stephen Stubbs. PMW aims to present early music in innovative ways, drawing from the contemporary zeitgeist and traditional performance practice to create wholly new works. Recent performances include a fabulous Monteverdi Vespers earlier this fall and a gritty update of The Magic Flute last spring, in collaboration with University of Washington School of Music.

Pacific MusicWorks Director Stephen Stubbs. Photo by Lee Talner.

Pacific MusicWorks Director Stephen Stubbs. Photo by Lee Talner.

Pacific MusicWorks and UW teamed up once again for Handel’s Messiah this holiday season, marrying PMW’s ensemble of period instruments and unique Baroque interpretations with the forces of the University of Washington Chamber Singers, the auditioned mixed chorus directed by Dr. Geoffrey Boers. (Perhaps it may be time for me to disclose that I sang under Dr. Boers in this very group for several years; it was one of the richest musical experiences of my life.) I attended the performance on Saturday, December 12 at Meany Hall, and left feeling uplifted and wholly impressed­–and much less bothered by the tradition of standing for the Hallelujah chorus than I expected to be.

The advertising surrounding this particular production of the Messiah focused on the placement of the four vocal soloists: Instead of the typical practice of placing them front and center (upstaging the orchestra, chorus and conductor himself), Stubbs positioned them alongside the chorus in a more traditional performance practice. The visual effect of equating all forty-odd singers onstage, regardless of their role, achieved a certain intimacy and cohesion rarely seen in Handel performances. Baroque vocal ornamentations–even in the choruses, which tend to be ignored–elevated the performance in its authenticity, as did the choice to use a countertenor voice in place of an alto soloist.

The piece begins with a Sinfonia, a lovely French Overture and Fugue segment that allows a peek into the musical mastery of the orchestral ensemble. The Pacific MusicWorks Orchestra’s interpretation of this opening was rife with creative embellishments in the solemn dotted introduction, and the precision of articulation of the fugal section created a light and elegant ambiance infused with an understated driving motion–a fitting introduction for the first featured soloist.

Tenor Zachary Wilder had me from his first word, literally; the first tenor accompagnato (“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people) opens with a gesture that allows for a bit of rhythmic lingering on “comfort,” and Wilder’s gorgeous blossoming messa di voce was only the first indication of the sensitivity with which he engages the text. His diction was the star of the following air, “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted,” where the compositional contour follows the textual imagery to a tee. (“Mountains” reach to the top of his range; “low” is, well, low). Meany is not particularly kind to singers, and Wilder’s bright resonance was perhaps the voice that played best within the venue, embodying that particular sort of early music clarity with the warmth of a perfectly crafted vibrato.

Countertenor Reginald Mobley. Photo by Liz Linder Photography.

Countertenor Reginald Mobley. Photo by Liz Linder Photography.

I only became more delighted with the soloists as countertenor Reginald Mobley came forward for his first selection, “But who may abide the day of his coming?” Mobley’s phrasing nears perfection, with tenderness in his tone and an obvious love of performance in his eyes. Despite his limited projection, every note in his range is absolutely delicious, especially at the extremes–his lows luscious and chesty, the perfect antithesis to his soaring highs. The orchestra accompanied Mobley flawlessly, especially when the score demanded musical agitation, which was only more unsettling when positioned alongside Mobley’s angelic countertenor.

Each of the soloists in Messiah are generally considered certain emblematic roles, if not characters. The tenor is often associated with Jesus, the countertenor or alto with humanity, the bass with God himself. And if we are to read the voices with these character associations, then bass-baritone Kevin Deas’s commanding vocal presence paints a dignified and often threatening God. Though he is undoubtedly effective at delivering a certain affect, I found his voice too heavy for the space and the agility demanded by Handelian coloratura passages. Deas’s voice opens up to a lovely brightness at the top, but this role wasn’t able to harness those strengths, and I found myself consistently yearning for more height in his tone and a narrower vibrato. Furthermore, much of his ominous text (“The people that walked in darkness”) was delivered without facial or physical expression, and while I understand the concept that being expressionless can be even more fearful (just watch The Shining), the text and the physicality of the other performers demanded a more nuanced and communicative performance.

The way the Messiah is constructed, the soprano isn’t allowed her own solo until well into Part I. However, given PMW’s decision to include the soloists in several of the choruses as well, snippets of Teresa Wakim’s performance had come through before she was featured in the soprano accompagnato and air (“Rejoice greatly”), and I was unimpressed with her insensitive phrasing and a tone that seemed harsh against the warmth of the choir. But Wakim is a story-teller, and when given the opportunity for personal expression and nuance, she grows into the responsibility of telling the Messiah. The tone that I had written off as grating played to her advantage in “Rejoice greatly,” where it blossomed into a lovely crystal clear sound with the dexterity necessary to easily maneuver the melismatic passages. Though the lower middle section sat in an unfavorably heavier place in her voice, by the time Wakim had finished the aria with the da capo’s flashy ornamentation and a final glitzy cadenza, she had completely entranced the audience and continued through the performance with passion and precision.

UW Chamber Singers is one of those unique choral groups whose straight tone, musical sensitivity and group mentality melds into a sound that is at once buoyant and rich, agile and forceful. Their dance-like phrasing, so appropriate for many of the choral sections in the Messiah, seeps into their physicality, creating a group that is as joyful to watch as to hear. Though several decisions needed fine-tuning (It’s difficult to synchronize a Baroque vocal ornamentation between 40 voices.), the Chamber Singers’ rhythmic energy and expressive depth added a necessary voice to the Messiah story: that of the crowd, the people at large, humanity in awe of the glory of God. It is a testament to the choir’s versatility that the virtuosic nature of their sound was evident whether the moment demanded proper homophonic elegance (“Wonderful!”) or contrapuntal runs, as evidenced through their glorious maneuvering through the Messiah‘s extraordinarily difficult Amen.

Handel’s Messiah was composed as an Easter oratorio, so its status as the Christmas holiday standard is suspect. (There have been at least a dozen distinct productions of Messiah in the Puget Sound area this holiday season.) The overplayed Hallelujah chorus and sometimes overly obvious compositional and text-painting techniques tend to make musically inclined Scrooges heave a heavy bah-humbug when the trumpet player comes onstage just in time for the bass aria “The trumpet shall sound.”

However, creative interpretations of the Messiah‘s nuances keeps this old work fresh, whether it be Stephen Stubbs’ play with the interactions and identity between ensemble and soloists, or the Seattle Symphony’s recent foray into conductor-turned-tenor-soloist. Pacific MusicWorks embodies the best of the best in Baroque performance practice, and their rendition of the Messiah can turn even skeptics into Handelian converts, if only for an evening. Hallelujah!

Claire Biringer
Claire Biringer is a Seattle-based music lover, educator and writer. She holds an MA in Music History from University of Washington, where her primary research involved contemporary opera and its social implications. She enjoys using music and writing to build communities and broaden minds.