Weekend concert roundup: Handel Choir, Monument Piano Trio
I ventured out into Sunday's rainy gloom to catch the first halves of two concerts, starting out at An die Musik, where its resident ensemble, the Monument Piano Trio, performed music of two composers you might not expect to find on the same program: Sibelius and Villa-Lobos. The former's early C major Trio is of modest proportions and modest content, with few clues that point to the kind of composer he would become. The players sounded a little less cohesive than usual (for one thing, violinist Igor Yuzefovich needed greater tonal smoothness), but made a vigorous case for the work.
Before heading uptown for my next performance, I got to hear one of the Villa-Lobos pieces on the bill, an arrangement of perhaps his best-known work, the Aria from "Bachianas Brasileiras" No. 5. Bonnie McNaughton was the soprano soloist, spinning out the graceful main theme with a lovely tone that lost none of its quality when switching to humming mode for the reprise (the last, soft high note emerged with particular subtlety and sweetness).
There was no way that her two collaborators from the trio, pianist Michael Sheppard and cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski, could
Sensitive singing was also an attraction at the performance of "Messiah" by the Handel Choir of Baltimore at the Church of the Redeemer, a venue with very clear acoustics and just enough reverberation. I stayed for the first half, which included portions of Part I and II.
I've said several times before that Melinda O'Neal has done wonders with the choir. It may still be lacking in tenor weight (a not uncommon shortcoming even in some all-professional choirs), but the ensemble offers considerable polish and musical responsiveness; texts were sung with admirable articulation.
O'Neal's introduction of a fine period instrument orchestra into the annual "Messiah" presentations (and other programs) continues to pay off. There was a combination of transparency and warmth in the orchestra's sound on this occasion, providing a dynamic foundation for the vocalists.
Given the presence of that period band, you might expect O'Neal to take consistently zippy tempos, but the conductor was almost leisurely much of the time, as if determined to prove that historical authenticity in baroque performance need not mean breathlessness. Her spacious shaping of the music proved highly effective.
Another plus was the stylish, well-matched solo vocal quartet -- smooth-toned soprano Katharine Dain; countertenor Ian Howell, whose remarkably ripe sound and powerfully communicative approach hit the spot; tenor Steven Brennfleck, who offered equal portions of elegant and dramatic phrasing; and bass Craig Phillips, who produced vibrant sparks.