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Updated Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 12:16 PM

On a day of tragedy, a compelling ‘Messiah’ | Classical review

By Melinda Bargreen
Special to the Seattle Times

Before all those joyful Hallelujahs came a reflection on grim reality.

The Seattle Symphony’s “Messiah” performance Friday evening began with an announcement that the event would be dedicated to the memory of the lives lost in that day’s horrific school shootings in Connecticut. Heads bowed all around Benaroya Hall for a moment of silence, but there would be many moments in the “Messiah” that followed for concertgoers to ponder themes of suffering, death, and redemption.

It was a compelling performance. This “Messiah” was led by Stephen Stubbs, a Seattle native who has established an international reputation as a lutenist, harpsichordist, and conductor of baroque opera. At times, the Seattle Symphony’s “Messiah” sounded almost operatic, with vivid emotional content and dramatic energy throughout the deftly trimmed score. (A few cuts were made in the oratorio, all of them defensible.)

Sometimes a performance that attempts to marry the conventions of a modern orchestra with authentic 18th-century performance practice can be an awkward hybrid. Not this one. Stubbs got almost all the string players to play with minimal vibrato, but with a rich and well-shaped sound that was full of life and energy. He chose a cast of four soloists who were lavish in their choice of imaginative embellishments; some of those arias had more embroidery than the Unicorn Tapestries.

Stubbs got a flexible and expressive performance out of the Seattle Symphony Chorale, too: “Surely He hath borne our grief” was heart-wrenching, and the pacing of “Lift up your heads” was highly dramatic.

Not everything worked perfectly, partly due to the stage configuration. Stubbs conducted while standing in front of an elevated harpsichord, which he occasionally played – sometimes only in part of a selection, sometimes only with one hand – while giving the orchestra and chorus cues. But the four vocal soloists (Shannon Mercer, Laura Pudwell, Ross Hauck and Kevin Deas) were positioned between Stubbs’ back and the audience, and accompanying these singers was correspondingly difficult. Some of the instrumental players must have also found it hard to see Stubbs, judging from a few defects in ensemble.

Mercer’s soprano solos were beautifully focused and expressive, and her performance of “Rejoice greatly” also demonstrated a breathtaking agility and speed. Hauck, the tenor, was extraordinarily expressive, with imaginative ornamentation that gave the familiar arias some nifty new twists. Few mezzo-sopranos are able to make the “Messiah” solos shine convincingly, and Pudwell was not one of those few. Deas’ bass solos grew in strength from a rather unfocused beginning to a more triumphant “The trumpet shall sound.” (And the trumpet did indeed sound, in a heroic and error-free performance by trumpeter Alexander White.)

As the “Hallelujah” Chorus rang out, in a day that otherwise did not inspire many hallelujahs, the performance sounded more heartfelt than ever. Even as the news reports recall Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, it is possible to find some solace in music whose message and whose beauty can lift us up.

Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at mbargreen@aol.com.

ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES

‘Messiah’

produced by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale, with Stephen Stubbs, conductor; Benaroya Hall, 1 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; $24-$91, (206-215-4747, www.seattlesymphony.org).


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