Georg Frederic Handel’s Messiah is a favorite during the Christmas and Easter season, but the religious nature of the work belies the fact that it is one of the supreme musical masterpieces. Its “Hallelujah Chorus”, which requires attendees of a live performance to stand, is one of the best known works in all of music, but Messiah is a work which is, from its opening notes, a sublime work that can be performed any day of the year with a profound effect.
Nevertheless, the Christmas holiday season remains the most popular time to perform this exuberant work, and in Chicago, the work has been the specialty of The Apollo Chorus, which has performed the work almost every year since 1879. This year, the entirely volunteer chorus, accompanied by a small orchestra of just over 30 performers, conducted by Apollo’s Music Director, Stephen Alltop, is giving two performances of the work, one performed on December 7 at Symphony Center, with another still to come at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
This year’s performance seemed to be one highly informed by the so-called period performances that have become the trend over the last several decades in an attempt to re-create the original spirit of classical pieces, particularly in, though not limited to, Baroque music. Technically, this performance would not be considered a period performance because of the use of modern instruments, as opposed to the use of the actual instruments that dated to the time of the first performance, but the orchestra’s tempi and inflection were much like that found in period performances. This practice is one that is to be commended, because large orchestras performing Baroque works at often turgid paces, in my opinion, is a practice that saps the spirit in which the works were conceived.
This performance was my introduction to The Apollo Chorus. It is probably clichéd at this point for those who have seen them, particularly in performance of this work, to commend their talent, their effort, and their cohesion in their singing, but just because excellence is routine or expected, it should not be taken as commonplace and the Apollo deserves a hearty commendation. In addition, the chorus was supported by four fine soloists. Tenor Samuel Levine and Bass Jonathan Beyer gave impassioned performances that demonstrated fine technique and skill, if not extraordinary voices. Tracy Watson, the alto soloist, also demonstrated superb technique, but her voice seemed quite small due, I think, to unfriendly acoustics in Orchestra Hall. The soprano soloist, Kiri Deonarine, suffered from no such problems; her voice was a powerful force which reverberated throughout the hall with a highly pleasing ring.
The Apollo Chorus of Chicago will give another performance of Handel’s Messiah at 3:00 PM on Saturday, December 21, at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
Photos: Courtesy of The Apollo Chorus