Music Review: Music City Baroque, rejoicing greatly in Handel’s ‘Messiah’

mcbchorus2Sing-along renditions of Handel’s Messiah can be real haphazard affairs. These popular events, which are as likely to take place in church basements as sanctuaries, often happen with few or no rehearsals.  Not surprisingly, potential choral train wrecks lurk behind every sixteenth note.

One group that’s equal to the challenges of the sing-in Messiah is Music City Baroque. Nashville’s premier period-instrument group was at Christ Church Cathedral on Monday night, performing its first holiday Handel in two years. The concert was full of glad tidings.

messiah2Unlike the typical 20th-century practice of amplifying Messiah through use of giant (and inauthentic) orchestras and choruses, Music City Baroque presented a more historically informed oratorio. Guest conductor Brian Russell led a small ensemble of about a dozen period-instrument musicians, who performed the Christmas portion of Messiah. The famed “Hallelujah” chorus from Part II served as the evening’s grand finale.

As usual, Music City Baroque’s musicians did a splendid job performing Handel’s 18th-century music. Russell led a performance that was remarkable for its clear, light textures and springy dance rhythms. The rendition featured all manner of graceful, tasteful Baroque ornaments. The only shortcoming was a lack of contrast between loud and soft playing – an essential ingredient in any authentic Baroque performance.

Monday’s performance featured a strong roster of familiar Music City Baroque vocal soloists. Soprano Megan Farmer was the evening’s standout performer, singing such arias as “Rejoice, greatly” with a silvery tone, effortless coloratura and unfailing sensitivity to the meaning of the words. Alto Mareike Sattler also gave a memorable performance. Her warm, plush, expressive voice cradled the aria “Oh thou that tellest good tidings” in a performance that brought out the lovely lullaby rhythms.

Tenor Derek Meler was at his best when singing in his comfortable middle register. He sang his opening aria “Every valley” with a creamy sound and palpable emotion. Bass Grant Farmer was just as successful in “But who may abide,” singing with sweet sensitivity.

About 150 or so choristers showed up for Monday’s sing along. After a brief orchestral introduction – Music City Baroque opened the concert with Handel’s Overture to Solomon and Passacaille from Terpsichore – the choristers seated themselves by voice type.  Altos and Sopranos sat on the left side of the cathedral; basses and tenors were on the right.

The performance seemed to attract more sopranos and basses, therefore, these singers delivered the most powerful and impressive performances. Nevertheless, the altos and tenors held their own with singing that was always thoughtful and musical.

There were many highlights. The exultant sixteenth-note roulades rolled effortlessly off the tongues of the singers in “For unto us a child is born.” Their bracing unison proclamations of “Wonderful” and “Counselor” were especially memorable.

Not surprisingly, the singers shined brightest in the famed “Hallelujah” chorus. Their performance was joyous, buoyant and energetic. It brought this delightful evening to an appropriately festive conclusion.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.