With his third “Messiah,” Alastair Stout has established his own tradition within Grace Congregational Church’s 60-year tradition. The church’s Scottish-born minister of music has added bagpipes, dancers and, this year, a world premiere. But, Sunday afternoon, at its center remained an excellent performance of Handel’s supreme music.
Stout led the nearly 70 voices of the Rutland Area Chorus — an amalgam of local church choirs — with professional vocal soloists and orchestra in Part I (Christmas) of George Frederic Handel’s “Messiah,” topped off with the “Hallelujah” Chorus (actually celebrating Easter). Stout employed the crisp precision of historical accuracy, but delivered the spiritual story of “Messiah.”
New this year was the first-ever winner of the Grace Church Composition Competition. “O Emmanuel,” written by Michael Sitton, dean of The Crane School of Music at the University of New York at Potsdam, continued this celebration of the English choral tradition. With a celebratory text based on the “Great O antiphons,” St. Augustine’s Prayer Book (2014), the rich choral work enjoyed subtle contemporary harmonic language adding spice to the traditional.
Almost in the style of a Handel concerto grosso, clusters of soloists, woodwind or vocal, interrupted the tutti (all). While that is an oversimplification of this short work, the technique was employed artfully to build drama and achieve the anticipated final choral climax. This is an attractive and worthy work — obviously, the new competition is attracting excellent composers.
Of course, with the same forces, “Messiah” sounded very different. Despite its large size — twice that of the oratorio’s first performance in 1742 — the Rutland Area Chorus proved unexpectedly deft. Stout’s aim rather than sounding big was to honor Handel’s markings, resulting in clarity and good diction. But the quiet contrasted with the loud for real drama, and built to a glorious sound. From the opening “And the Glory of the Lord” on, the community chorus ultimately sounded rich and full — and inspired.
This year’s soloists were the same as last, and that is a good thing. Baritone Zebulun McLellan delivered the bass arias with a natural musicality and warmth, and he offered “For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth” with a particularly beautiful lyricism. Cameron Steinmetz employed his light tenor delivering the likes of “Every valley shall be exalted” with brilliance and dramatic rhythmic drive.
Mezzo-soprano Amy Frostman sang with her usual warmth and golden sound, and with “O that tellest good tidings to Zion,” a beautiful delicacy (as did the chorus). Despite some unexpected voice trouble, Allison Steinmetz, a fine coloratura soprano, delivered the brilliance of “Rejoice, greatly O daughter of Zion.” Frostman and Steinmetz joined in an irresistibly tender “He shall feed His flock like a Shepherd.”
The orchestra, at 20, smaller than Handel’s original, managed a lightness possible only with good professionals, complementing rather than covering the soloists. Yet it delivered great sound during the glorious sounds.
Adding to Handel’s musical theatricality, Stout added four spry young modern dancers who performed Stefania Nadia’s lyrical choreography down the aisles during some of the bigger choruses. And piper Ellen Green ably introduced the “Pastoral Symphony” with its theme on bagpipes. Some purists winced, but it was attractive — and unexpected.
The concert opened with a short work by an earlier English Baroque composer, Henry Purcell (1659-1695). His “Sing unto the Lord,” bearing some structural similarity to the brand new Sitton, was a delightful work with Renaissance-like simplicity — and provided something of a showcase for the soloists.
Grace Church is right to add its stamp on its “Messiah” performance. Without messing with a note of the masterpiece, Stout has invited new interest in an old tradition — and, with it, delivered the joy.