Compelling ‘Messiah’ from a chorus of soloists

Julian Wachner, Trinity Wall Street
San Francisco Chronicle

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If you were searching the program booklet for a listing of the vocal soloists in the performance of Handel’s “Messiah” presented by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street on Saturday, Dec. 10, you would have found the task a slightly tricky one. It turns out that this is a vocal ensemble so rich in talent that its members just step to the fore, one after another, whenever there’s a solo that needs singing.


That was just one of the novelties in the vibrant account of this Baroque masterpiece, presented in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall by Cal Performances. With conductor Julian Wachner leading a performance that also featured the excellent Trinity Baroque Orchestra, it was an evening calculated to rejuvenate the spirits of anyone beginning to weary of the annual “Messiah” tradition.


The choral singing sounded robust and finely detailed. The orchestral playing was a blend of seamless ensemble work and a few superb solo turns (trumpeter John Thiessen’s dazzling contribution to “The trumpet shall sound” only reconfirmed his status as one of the great Baroque instrumentalists of our time).


And Wachner, who has proved himself an inspired but sometimes mannered conductor in recent appearances with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the San Francisco Opera, shaped the entire evening with an eye to giving these familiar strains new and vivid life. Not a chorus, not a solo aria, not an orchestral interlude sounded casual or pro forma — every moment crackled with interpretive energy.


True, an element of calculation crept in here and there, when Wachner seemed a little too intent on underlining passages that would have been perfectly effective in a more traditional guise. In particular, the glacial tempos he chose at key junctures (the opening “Comfort ye,” the alto aria “He was despised” or the concluding “Amen”) came off as bids for eccentricity.