Dance in Review

Bill Esler

Bill Esler

A native Chicagoan, Bill Esler has been a printer and publisher for more than 35 years. He has B.A. in English with a concentration in writing from Knox College.  

The Apollo Chorus has been performing Handel's Messiah since 1879 and they have it nailed. Singing through the 53 Bible passages Handel set to a Baroque score 250 years ago, it becomes quickly clear - three numbers in - as the choir sings its first part, who owns this performance: it's the Apollo Chorus. Performing and recording steadily through the years, this volunteer singing body is professional caliber. And largely as a result, this is a very satisfying Messiah - just right to kick off the holiday season. 

By the time the Apollo Chorus goes at it, we have heard the opening Sinfonia by the 28-piece orchestra assembled for the performance. The orchestra has all the essentials required for a strong Handel's Messiah: trumpeters ("A Trumpet Shall Sound"), timpani (essential to the Hallelujah Chorus), an organist (a fundamental underlay for the majesty of Handel's masterpiece); a harpsichord (like the organ, this is the house instrument at the Harris, built for Barbara Gaine's Music of the Baroque ensemble); and 20 string players, with Jeri-Lou Zike leading as concertmaster among the five first violinists. 

At this point we have also heard from tenor, William Hite (a Senior Lecturer in Voice at U. Mass in Amherst and frequent opera performer), the first of the soloists (in the recitative, "Comfort ye my people" and the air "Every valley shall be exalted.") He knows how to sing the part. 

The 120-member chorus then rises to its feet for "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.") It is signature Handel, and signals to the audience these singers both know the music, and know how to they want to deliver: purposeful and strong, with tightly controlled volume, and clear expression and phrasing. They are consistent throughout 

For those who have listened often to the Messiah, there are markers for style and quality: the tempo (is the Messiah to run fast or slow); soloists: will the basic trio of bass, tenor and soprano by joined by a mezzo-soprano, contralto, alto, or the increasingly popular countertenor? Will they use 18th century period instruments?

Messiah geeks go further, for example, stressing over the expression by singers and players of the ornamental grace notes that bring the trilling associated with baroque music in general. These free-form music indicators are subject to interpretation. 

The Apollo Chorus has made the choices that provide its audience with an accessible, enjoyable and up tempo Messiah, crisply delivered in a rapid 2 hours and 50 minutes including one intermission (and a five minute delay about 20 minutes in as latecomers were seated.)

Conducted last night by Steven Alltop, this Messiah also saves the fidgety members of audience from what can seem an interminable sitting for those who aren't regular baroque listeners.) It's fitting considering Handel wrote the piece from a libretto by Charles Jennens in just 22 days. 

We'll note that once in a while the spaces between passages seemed a bit too short. At certain points the silence between airs and recitative functions like a palate cleanser for the ear.  

The chorus sings with clarity - bring to mind the 300-member Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Apollo Choristers enunciate the language.   

The prominence of the chorus contrasts with the soloists, each skillful, but not making for a natural ensemble. Bass singer Sam Handley, a graduate of Lyric Opera's school, whose background indicates he is trending as an opera performer, warmed as the evening progressed. In his opening with "Thus saith the Lord of Hosts" he seemed a bit tenative - the Harris is a space that takes some adjustment for performers -  but by the time we reached the air "The trumpet shall sound," Handley's individual sections were generating excitement for this listener. (They say he leaves audiences "panting for more.")

Amanda Majeski has the volume and baroque technique down cold, and presented the soprano role in the Messiah with great strength. (She is a frequent performer at Chicago's Lyric Opera, where Majeski's work is described as  "shattering, star-making performance."

Likewise, Elisa Sutherland sang very well, in fact, with more warmth perhaps than Amanda Majeski. But she was certainly struggling with volume - and as a consequence the audience could not hear her well. Owing to this, when concertmaster Sikes accompanied her, the violin performance was in danger of overshadowing Sutherland. Being close up I can attest that she sang wonderfully, if too quietly for the space. 

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