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Despite its familiarity, Handel's "Messiah" is a potential minefield of tricky stops and starts, technical challenges, and other opportunities to run amok. Seldom have all these pitfalls been so smoothly negotiated as in the Seattle Symphony's current "Messiah" production, which is a thorough triumph for conductor Christian Knapp from start to finish.
Knapp, who looked positively delighted to be there, was considerably more than just a traffic cop, directing players and singers this way and that. His clean, concise conducting underscored the oratorio's innate drama, urging all the forces onward with a commendable attention to both detail and meaning. At times - as in the chorus "He trusted in God" - Knapp cued the Seattle Symphony Chorale into a near-frenzy of excited intensity. The results were breathtaking.
The conductor also opted for measures that made this "Messiah" a taut, forward-moving show. He took unusually brisk tempi in several of the choruses; he also eliminated awkward pauses by having soloists and chorus stand and sit early, so the flow of the music was unimpeded.
The Chorale, prepared by new director Joseph Crnko, acquitted itself well, sounding alert, focused and completely committed to the performance. The four vocal soloists were Celena Shafer (soprano), Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo-soprano), David Ossenfort (a mellifluous tenor) and Harold Wilson (a resonant bass). Shafer's operatic gestures and expressions might have been a bit overdone, but she nailed the difficult passagework and sang with extraordinary clarity. Trumpeter Rick Pressley did a fine job with his solos; the violins sounded great under the leadership of concertmaster Frank Almond. In sum, it was a great "welcome home" for Knapp, formerly associate conductor here, and obviously a guy on the way up.