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December 12, 2011

An elegant 'Messiah' from Handel Choir of Baltimore

Please excuse the sacrilege, but I do not feel the need to hear 'Messiah' every single season. It's just one of those masterworks that I can cherish deeply without yearly exposure.

That said, I know we are fortunate to have some fine annual presentations of the oratorio in our area.

For visceral excitement, it's hard to beat the one that Ed Polochick conducts for the BSO. He takes some of the fastest tempos in the West and can coax some of the most sensitive and colorful nuances out of a chorus. He typically has fine soloists as well.

But this year, I decided on the Handel Choir of Baltimore, which delivered an admirable (and abridged) account of "Messiah" Saturday night at St. Ignatius Church -- the 77th year this organization has presented the oratorio, an impressive track record.

As I have noted before, Melinda O'Neal has ...

honed this ensemble over the past seven years or so. It's flexible and responsive, capable of producing a warm, cohesive sound, which it did on this occasion.  

At either end of the dynamic range, however, I felt a little cheated. I would have welcomed a more delicate pianissimo, a more shattering fortissimo. Even at their loudest, the choristers were easily outgunned by the enthusiastic timpanist. I think this music can handle (so to speak) greater contrasts.

O'Neal paced the score in rather courtly fashion, nothing too fast or too slow -- not that there's anything wrong with that. The performance exuded an air of elegance and intimacy, a feeling aided by the subtle timbre of the fine period instrument orchestra. The orchestra's gentle phrasing of the "Pifa" was an especially telling moment.

Soprano Teresa Wakim offered a pearly tone and vivid ornamentation. Tenor Matthew Anderson used his beautifully rounded, supple voice to make each phrase speak eloquently.

I found the timbre of countertenor Charles Humphries a bit edgy, but his singing had a good deal of communicative weight. Timothy LeFebvre's mellow baritone and technical finesse rounded out the solo quartet admirably.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:36 PM | | 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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