The Nashville Symphony Orchestra Chorus is singing “Hallelujah” this weekend, and it’s not just because they’re performing Handel’s Messiah.
This season marks the chorus’ 50th anniversary, and it’s also conductor Kelly Corcoran’s first official year serving as chorus director. Corcoran admittedly had some humongous shoes to fill. Her immediate predecessor, George Mabry, led the chorus for 14 years and helped it forge a national reputation through its Naxos recordings. Corcoran seems to be successfully carrying on the tradition, since the chorus sang with power and luminosity during Wednesday night’s performance at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
The NSO performs Messiah a little differently each year, and this week it’s actually presenting it with a different conductor. Matthew Halls, a dynamic and youthful British-born conductor, is a fascinating choice to lead Messiah. He is an early music expert who has led such important European Baroque orchestras as Les Arts Florissants and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Despite his background, though, Halls is making no attempt to lead a historically authentic performance in Nashville.
Instead, he’s splitting the difference, pairing a medium-sized chamber orchestra – which roughly approximates the size of the forces Handel would have used at Messiah’s premiere in 1742 – with a large chorus. Given that this is the chorus’ 50th anniversary, a scaled-down version of the chorus (even for purposes of historical accuracy) would have been unacceptable.
Halls certainly put his Baroque training to good use. Using large, expressive gestures, he led the orchestra with energy, emphasizing along the way the work’s springy Baroque dance rhythms. The musicians, for their parts, played with linear transparency, and they were careful to vary their loud and soft playing in accordance with proper Baroque performance practice. Their accompaniment of the soloists and the full chorus was wonderfully sensitive.
For its vocal soloists, the orchestra mostly seems to have drawn from the ranks of recent conservatory graduates. These singers, nonetheless, delivered commendable performances on Wednesday. I was extremely impressed with the sheer heft, gravitas and midnight-black hue of bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha’s voice. This is how I imagine an Old Testament prophet to sound. Naturally, he brought sufficient fury to the aria “Why do the nations so furiously rage.”
Soprano Lei Xu sang with a voice that was bright, though at the start of the evening her tone seemed a bit brittle. Once warmed up, her voice became increasingly lush and silky. Indeed, her rendition of Part III’s “I know that my Redeemer liveth” was deeply felt and effective.
Mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim sang with a plush voice, but her interpretations did not always seem to match the meaning of the words. She had a way of making even the happy Christmas arias from Part I seem melancholy. Suffice it to say she brought the right amount of heartache to Part II’s “He was despised.” Tenor Andrew Stenson sang with a strong, creamy voice, but with diction that was sometimes a bit too soupy and slurred for my taste.
The chorus, I am happy to report, was spot on all evening. Its sound was powerful, beautifully blended, and its interpretations were unfailingly sensitive to the meaning of the text. The group was technically fabulous, tossing off the sixteenth-note roulades in “For unto us a child is born” with remarkable agility. The entire audience gladly stood in time-honored tradition as the chorus delivered an utterly joyous “Hallelujah.”
This is a terrific Messiah. You should spread the good tidings and bring a friend to either Thursday’s or Friday’s repeat performance.
If You Go
Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus presents Handel’s Messiah. Performances are 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12 and 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $49 to $138 and are available at the Schermerhorn Box Office, by calling 615-687-6400 or by clicking here.