Before Thursday night it was already obvious there were big changes to the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra‘s annual rendition of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah.
Instead of driving to the University of Kentucky’s Singletary Center for the Arts, we were directed to the Cathedral of Christ the King in Chevy Chase. And on stage – or, um, the chancel? – the orchestra was all of 27 players, backed by the 37 voices of the Lexington Chamber Chorale instead of the 100-plus Lexington Singers.
But the biggest transformation came in the performance, in which Handel’s classic oratorio went from a grandiose set of timeless tunes to a story.
In slightly less than 90 minutes, maestro Scott Terrell and his collaborators, including a sterling quartet of vocal soloists, took us through the three distinct acts of Messiah: the prophecy of Christ, his birth and life, and his death and resurrection.
Not only did the scaled-down size of the orchestra and no-intermission format accent the drama of the piece, but the setting of the Cathedral, where the presentation was delivered beneath a large crucifix, made the whole gist of the program pretty hard to miss.
This is what Terrell, in his second season with the Phil, wanted to do with the work: make it closer to its original Baroque-era form where the dancing rhythms and nuances of the story could be illuminated.
This is not completely new to Lexington. Christ Church Cathedral has delivered a Baroque-era Messiah nearly as long as the Philharmonic has presented the large-scale modern version at the Singletary Center. (Christ Church will do so again Friday night, at almost the same time the second performance of the Philharmonic’s production is presented.) And over the years, area churches and colleges have produced smaller-scale versions.
But the Philharmonic’s Messiah easily attracts the largest Central Kentucky audiences for the work. So the orchestra’s radical change means a change in how most area music lovers experience Messiah.
At the downbeat Thursday night, the clarity of the strings was striking. It was the first of many moments when aspects of the piece just popped, including choral parts. Terrell arranged the women forward, just behind the orchestra, and then the tenors and basses set back on raised portions of the chancel so their entrances were clearly defined and grabbed our attention.
The soloists did too, including commanding baritone Ryan Taylor, angelic mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck, soprano Angela Gilbert and tenor Javier Abreu who brought the drama the way the high voices are supposed to. The solo of the night though belonged to trumpeter Joseph Van Fleet whose performance in The Trumpet Shall Sound heralded a moment of majesty toward the conclusion of the performance.
Sometimes there are a lot of those moments in a Messiah performance. But this version delivered other colors. For Unto Us a Child is Born often comes across as a moment to bowl the audience over with vocal power. But here, in the voices of the Chamber Chorale, it was a more joyful piece, more the announcement of a child than coronation of a King. They saved that for later.
In what easily had to be the biggest performance of the Chamber Chorale’s existence, the group acquitted itself admirably, demonstrating solid technique and deep sensitivity to the text. Audiences will walk away wanting to hear more of this modest ensemble.
They’ll probably also want to hear another rendition of Messiah like this.
It is all a matter of taste. For more than 20 years, the Philharmonic has presented a large symphonic Messiah that was the norm for much of the 20th Century. And because Messiah has usually been one of the best sellers in a Philharmonic season, it would have been easy to argue it wasn’t broke, so why fix it?
But Terrell made a solid case for his vision with this production, which will be repeated Friday night at the Cathedral and Saturday at Berea’s Union Church with the Berea College Concert Choir and Chamber Singers. (For those who want a big Messiah, the Lexington Singers present their production Dec. 19.)
The challenge for Terrell will now be what to do next. Does this rendition, this location for Messiah become the new tradition for the Philharmonic, or will he continue to keep this slot on the orchestra’s schedule moving and fresh?
Questions like that and performances like this weekend’s are making the Lexington Philharmonic a lot of fun to follow these days.