The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Capella Antiqua Choir and Baroque Orchestra
G.F. Handel's Messiah- December 15, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
It’s a special treat to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime; it’s an extra special treat to have the performance in the magnificent Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. Messiah at the Cathedral is an annual tradition, but this year a new partnership began a fresh chapter in that tradition. The Capella Antiqua Choir and Baroque Orchestra joined the Cathedral Choir under the direction of the Cathedral’s Music Director, Rexphil Rallanka to perform this evening’s program for an audience of many hundreds.
Eight minutes before the scheduled start of the program a brass ensemble began playing Christmas carols that echoed throughout the vast interior of the Cathedral while audience and performers assembled. The 13 instrumentalists were on ground-floor level encircling harpsichordist, Faythe Vollrath, who is also the Artistic Director for Capella Antiqua Choir and Baroque Orchestra. The singers were on the platform in the crossing of the Cathedral, the men standing on the higher two levels.
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The concert began with “In Dulci Jubilo” by Dietrich Buxtehude. This 17th-century piece was a perfect lead-in to Messiah, composed mere decades later. As I listened to the Buxtehude composition and followed the season-appropriate text translated in the program from the original German, I thought about the acoustics of the Cathedral. Of course, music in this space has a pronounced reverberation. At several points, I felt that the music was coming from the back of the Cathedral — which, in a sense, it was. The unfortunate aspect of this effect is that the articulation of a choir is pretty much lost, especially when the tempo is quick, as it was in this piece. That applied on this evening to both the words and the melismata (multiple notes on a single syllable) of all the music performed. In the final analysis, since the words were in German anyway, I gladly accepted the trade-off to get the glorious effect of those reverberations.
I made one observation during the performance that might be a subtle characteristic of choral performances in this space. It struck me that I was hearing much more bass than the other voice parts, or perhaps more of all the men than I was hearing of the women. I noticed that their numbers were the same, and I assume there was a fundamental balance in the strength of each section. Then it struck me that the men, especially the bases, were standing higher than the women, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether this positioning, perhaps uniquely in the Cathedral, might cause them to seem louder than the women. (I foresee someone conducting a scientific study about this.)
The advance notices of the concert said that a piece by Corelli would be included, but it was not on tonight’s program. So after the applause for the Buxtehude died down, director Rallanka took a seat, and the orchestra began playing the overture or “Sinfony.” The tempo was significantly faster than I’m used to, but how could this music be anything but glorious?
Tenor Matthew Hildago performed “Comfort ye my people” and “Every valley shall be exalted” with an appealing tone and great dynamic control. He performed the Baroque figures with confidence and accuracy, and I noticed him smiling as he sang — from memory. He ended with a bold bit of ornamentation and a brilliant high note. Then the choir came in with a crisp, performance of “And the glory”, a performance that just danced. It was grand.
Bass Jordan Krack lent his big voice to a dramatic performance of “Thus saith the Lord of hosts” and “But who may abide the day of his coming,” taking all the repeats for an heroic vocal workout. After the choir’s “And he shall purify the sons of Levi,” alto Sophia Satulli gave us a mellow “Behold, a virgin shall conceive” and “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion.” I’ve heard other altos perform this with voices that displayed a very covered sound. Satulli’s voice was, by contrast, easy to listen to, not over-cultivated. As she sang, I felt a special sensitivity to melody and phrase, with unforced runs. And I felt, and occasionally saw, her smiling as she sang.
“For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” was sung by baritone David Paterson who demonstrated a clear, yet cultivated voice in this and “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The tempo of “Pifa” or the “Pastoral Symphony” that followed “For unto us a child is born” was again a little too fast for my taste.
Jacquelyn Atti’s stong soprano in “There were shepherds abiding in the field” and “And lo, the angel of the Lord” led to a glorious “Glory to God in the highest” from the chorus, including a shining moment for the tenors.
BrieAnne Welch performed “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion,” handling the runs with ease. I’m always a little confused about what defines a “lyric soprano,” but that’s the way I want to describe Welch’s listenable voice. Satulli and Welch (and the choir) lent their talents to “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened,” the surpassingly lovely “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd,” and “His yoke is easy.” With that, Part I of Messiah was complete, but this performance was far from over.
BrieAnne Welch gave a soothing rendition of “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” I found myself yawning during this piece, and it’s nothing negative about Welch. I think I always yawn when I hear it: it’s that lulling and comforting to me. And Welch’s expressive singing worked that spell on me once again.
Coming out of Messiah’s order (but who cares?) was “He that dwelleth in heaven” by Salvatore Atti. Atti was a volcano of energy in this performance — pouring in drama and the sense of aggression that the piece demands. He did it all with excellent tone, ending on an especially high note to underline his tenor creds.
Like any performance of the Christmas section of Messiah (plus the pieces noted above), it all culminated in the "Hallelujah Chorus." I think most of the audience might have been fairly inexperienced with this piece of music because very few stood as the singing began, something which Messiah aficionados have done in the centuries since British King George II (reportedly) stood when we heard it performed. They all caught on tonight, of course, and now there will be many more people to secure the tradition.
I haven’t said a lot about the choir, 31 very accomplished singers, many of them professionals or at least professional in their capabilities. Under Rallanka’s direction they performed this evening with enthusiasm, understanding, and the artistry which this very difficult piece demands. In every way, especially with the Baroque Orchestra, this was an authentic performance. Beyond that, it was a completely different experience of Messiah because of its venue, the resonant, evocative and beautiful Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.