The capacity audience at Grace Church’s “Messiah” performance Sunday afternoon enjoyed an unexpected pleasure, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. George Frederick Handel’s ultimate masterpiece was paired with Bach’s Cantata BWV 62, bringing together the two greatest masters of the Baroque, and among those of all time.
But that’s not all that was unexpected. “Messiah” sounded decidedly different this year, crisper, more immediate, more intimately communicating — and ultimately more powerful. (As is traditional at Christmas, only Parts I and the “Hallelujah Chorus” were performed; the entire work lasts more than three hours.)
Alastair Stout, Grace Congregational Church’s minister of music now in his second year, judiciously cut the size of the orchestra and demanded precision and got plenty of it from the hundred or so members of the Rutland Area Chorus.
The new sound was hardly noticeable in “Messiah’s” Overture, but with the first chorus, “And the glory of the Lord,” it became obvious. Rather than loud beginning to end, the diction and articulation were clear and the dramatic arc was sculpted. With all the choruses, “Messiah” took on the storytelling it’s all about.
As soon as Cameron Steinmetz began the first recitative, “Comfort ye,” the benefit of the slightly pared orchestra (to 19) became obvious. Instead of competing with the instrumentalists, his lovely lyrical tenor reverberated throughout the church. Zubulun McLellan’s articulation in “Thus saith the Lord” was dramatic, and his warm lyricism in “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” enjoyed a warm lyricism.
Mezzo-soprano Amy Frostman’s “But who may abide the day of His coming” was light, lyrical and lovely. Soprano Allison Devery Steinmetz achieved a joyful brilliance, but not without nuance, in “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion.” All the soloists shone.
The Bach Cantata (a musical form for the Protestant church service) was expectedly more challenging. (Perhaps it’s because Handel wrote for the public, but Bach had to please God.) Here the orchestra of area professionals proved its excellence. James Cassarino, music director of Trinity Episcopal Church in Rutland and music professor at Castleton University, was harpsichordist.
The chorus had much the same challenges as the Handel, and delivered, but the soloists had much more difficult parts. Still Steinmetz and McLellan delivered their relentless articulation with its intended musicality. Devery Steinmetz and Frostman were lovely in the penultimate recitative. It was a rewarding all-around.
Community performances of “Messiah” abound during the holidays, but few deliver the depth and nuance of one of the greatest works of music of all time. Grace Church is certainly moving in that direction.