Compelling ‘Messiah’ from a chorus of soloists

Julian Wachner
San Francisco Chronicle

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.
Yet not even those episodes could stall the gripping sense of engagement that suffused the performance overall. And there were many interpretive decisions — from the mellifluous cast of the bass aria “The people that walked in darkness” or the momentum-driven account of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” to the placement of trumpets in a high balcony for the chorus “Glory to God in the highest” — that paid rich rewards.
The music program that Wachner oversees at the Trinity Church in New York City’s Lower Manhattan, an ambitious undertaking that encompasses early and contemporary music alike, has been the object of increasingly admiring attention in recent years, and this performance was as good a reminder as any of why that is so.
Certainly it’s the rare chorus that can simply pluck vocal soloists from among its ranks and give them the spotlight — although the success of most of these artists made one wonder why it’s not done more often. Read the rest of the review here