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May 17, 2011

A memorable performance of Mozart's Requiem from Handel Choir of Baltimore

Since Melinda O'Neal took the artistic helm at the Handel Choir of Baltimore seven seasons ago, the ensemble has made consistent and substantial growth.

The latest proof came Sunday afternoon with a concert that filled the elegant space of St. Ignatius Church -- one of my favorite spots in Baltimore -- with a rich, cohesive sound. The event filled the place with listeners, too. It was good to see such a big turnout.

Before that sound emerged fully in the program's main item, Mozart's Requiem, there was a welcome dose of Bach.

The excellent early music group Harmonious Blacksmith offered subtly nuanced excerpts from "Art of the Fugue," each contrapuntal line floating eloquently in the nicely reverberant space.

That instrumental prelude provided an ideal lead-in to the cantata "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit," featuring the Chandos Singers (a subset of the choir) and sturdy solo artists.

O'Neal drew a smooth response from the choristers, whose voices blended warmly with the accompanying period instrument ensemble.

It was great to hear ...

tenor Aaron Sheehan again; his appearances in this area invariably impress for the warmth of his tone, the communicative reach of his phrasing. Monica Reinagel is another singer who invariably does appealing work; the contralto did so again on this occasion. Soprano Emily Noel and bass Jason Hardy completed the solo quartet effectively.

After intermission, the focus was on Mozart. The full-strength Handel Choir took the stage (or altar), joined by an expanded period instrument orchestra.

The delivery of "Ave verum Corpus," just about the most sublime four or five minutes of music ever composed by anyone, prompted the one disappointment for me.

O'Neal's devotion to historically informed performance practice guaranteed that the piece would be taken at a good clip. I think the faster pace of the authenticity-minded can sometimes obscure subtleties, can pass by opportunities to savor the shape of a line or the impact of a harmonic shift. I would have loved to hear these forces take just a little more time with the "Ave verum Corpus."

But even at O'Neal's tempo, softer dynamics from chorus and instrumentalists alike would have helped. I craved a real pianissimo.

In the Requiem, though, everything lined up persuasively. The conductor's overall sense of momentum helped to maintain tension and a strong sense of the music's deep-set drama (O'Neal used the 2005 Franz Beyer edition of Mozart's unfinished score).

The chorus produced hefty waves of well-focused tone, while always articulating cleanly. The solo quartet again made vibrant contributions, with some especially sweet tones from Noel. And the orchestra sealed the deal with the kind of playing that could win over period instrument skeptics -- good intonation, abundant color in tone and phrasing.

In the end, the music sounded bracingly fresh and quite moving. Can't ask for much more than that.

The 2011-12 season -- the Handel Choir's 77th -- will include performances of Handel's "Messiah" and "Semele," as well as a a program of works by Brahms, Britten and others.



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:12 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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