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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