The Messiah, of Chorus

Handel’s Messiah, presented by the Santa Barbara Choral Society. At the First Presbyterian Church, Saturday, December 2.

Reviewed by James Hanley Donelan

The crowd on the altar was exceptionally large: one conductor, four soloists, about 30 instrumentalists, and 90 members of the choir, all clad in black. Above and behind them, a Christmas tree with white lights reminded us we were here for the most popular of all oratorios — Handel’s Messiah. When Maestra Jo Anne Wasserman lifted her baton, our spirits rose in response. In troubled times, it’s a pleasure to hear all those voices assure us that all could be “Wonderful! Marvelous!” and right with the world.

Four professional soloists — soprano Deborah Mayhan, alto Tihana Herceg, tenor Jonathan Mack, and bass Ron Li-Paz — gave clear, vivid renderings of the work’s many recitatives and airs, often with dramatic flair and glorious color. But Handel gave the choir the real show-stoppers: They sang “For unto Us a Child Is Born” and the “Hallelujah Chorus.” We all stood for the “Hallelujah,” as countless audiences have done in the past, although no one is exactly sure how the tradition began. (The story about the king is almost surely apocryphal.) It was still fun to stand up, and some people sang along. Tradition allows that, too, but not everyone did.

Most of us were too busy listening to the music coming from the altar. As always, Handel’s sense of balance and symmetry was as solid as a Georgian mansion. Herceg’s performance of “O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion,” for instance, led so gracefully into the choir’s annunciation that our burdens were lifted off our shoulders and into the clear, starry sky outside. Later, when Mack told us “Thou Shalt Break Them,” the bonds of earthly suffering really did seem to break. For a moment, we glimpsed the best of all possible worlds.

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