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The ASO's Chamber Chorus, the elite members of the chorus, were spotlighted in the weekend performances of Handel's "Messiah." Photos by Raftermen)

Review: The ASO’s jumbled Handel’s “Messiah” has musical peaks and valleys

We’re desperate to return to normal, to attend our favorite shows, despite the endless plague of deadly new Covid variants. Whistling past the graveyard, so to speak, we attend holiday concerts like the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s annual excerpt from Handel’s Messiah. This year they paired it with Bach’s cantata Jauchzet, frohlocket (“Celebrate, Rejoice”), part of his Christmas Oratorio.

Conducted, as usual, by ASO chorus director Norman Mackenzie, Friday’s concert included a deluxe quartet of operatic soloists and the normally exquisite ASO Chamber Chorus — considered to be the elite members of the larger chorus, which itself is one of the best symphonic choruses in the country. Although this choir has been silent for almost two pandemic years, we know from experience that Mackenzie’s ultra-rigorous training regimen could hammer the singers into top shape. And the enthusiastic Symphony Hall audience, almost at capacity, was vaccinated and (mostly) masked. We were ready to again luxuriate in the most beloved excerpts from Handel’s most popular work.

All the components appeared to be in place.

Yet everything — almost everything — felt a little off.

There were glorious moments, to be sure, notably from the vocal quartet. Mackenzie conducted Messiah’s opening Sinfonia at first in awkward, blocky chunks, as if highlighting the pomp. But in the fugal section that follows, the orchestra exploded with energy. It flowed, it sang. Still, the ensemble, reduced to sort-of Baroque proportions, sounded bass-heavy across the evening. The three cellos and especially the two basses played all out all the time, throwing off the balances.

Tenor Sean Panikkar only makes one appearance in Act 1 — or, as the score labels it, “Part the First” — but he delivered “Ev’ry Valley” with a lot of personality. His tenor has a baritonal richness, and I loved how he rolled the “r” and then flattened the “p” on the words “rough places plain,” almost like scene painting with his consonants.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, who sang in the ASO’s delicious Hansel & Gretel a few weeks ago, returned for Messiah. She makes an immediate impact, and when she stands up, ready to sing, the electricity in the room rises. Her voice was lovely and warm for “But who may abide” and “Behold, a virgin shall conceive,” veiled in a light caramel color. But her projection dropped almost to a whisper for the prestissimo “Refiner’s Fire” section as she nailed the rapid-fire acrobatic coloratura demands. Accurate, musical or loud: Pick two.

ASO chorus director Norman Mackenzie led the performance of Handel’s “Messiah.”

Bass-baritone Lawson Anderson, an Atlanta native, is a big discovery. He’s still growing into his amazing instrument, not quite under control. It’s a firm plank of a voice, with real power and an attractive tone. Wonderfully, he sang the words and not the notes; for the gloomy and transcendent passage “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light,” his clear diction and natural phrasing gave his lines added sparkle and texture. I hope the ASO invites him back soon. 

Only soprano Jessica Rivera, another ASO regular, seemed off her game, bright and fluttery and shrill. The soprano enters near the end of Part the First, as the angel announces the birth of Christ, and here was the most curiously troubled section of this Messiah.

It starts with a little pastoral “Pifa” orchestral interlude (again the cellos and basses were overbearing). Then the soprano launches into the narrative “There were shepherds abiding in the field . . . ” and you start to feel Handel’s acceleration in dramatic energy — leading directly to the chorus bursting in with cries of “Glory to God!” In the best performances, it’s a hair-raising moment. 

Instead, it was here timid and ill-focused. Mackenzie, an exacting musician and genius chorusmaster, has allowed his interpretation of Messiah to accumulate mannerisms over the years, like barnacles on a ship’s hull. It can make for rough sailing. His approach has become not so much “historically informed” — trying to play closer in style to what the composer intended — as a mishmash of idiosyncratic gestures, some beautifully realized but many incompatible with the whole. 

Before intermission they offered Bach’s Jauchzet, frohlocket Cantata, music that’s much less familiar, which perhaps explained why it was altogether fresher and more spirited. But here, too, the balances were off, and the orchestra and chorus weren’t breathing or reacting as an ensemble.

While the vocal quartet sang unmasked — presumably they each passed a rapid Covid test that day — the 54-voice chorus sang with what looked like heavy black masks. The masks muffled the subtleties of Bach and Handel in sound and diction and probably morale. Perhaps wearing them is a small price to pay to perform and hear live music through our unending global health crisis. But nothing is perfect these days, not even the ASO Chamber Chorus.

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Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington Post, London’s Financial Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is publications director of Early Music America.

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