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Davies presents a splendid account of Handel’s choral writing

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Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the reduced resources of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, conducted by their Director Ragnar Bohlin, gave the first of three performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 Messiah as part of this month’s seasonal offerings. The instrumental resources of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) were kept to the scale of a chamber orchestra, with a bare-bones string section led by Assistant Concertmaster Mark Volkert, two oboes (Jonathan Fischer and Russ deLuna), and Stephen Paulson providing continuo support on bassoon. Jonathan Dimmock alternated between harpsichord and organ, Mark Inouye provided the obbligato solo trumpet work during the third part of Handel’s oratorio and was joined by Justin Emmerich and timpanist Alex Orfaly (using appropriately hard sticks) for the remaining “triumphant” numbers from the set. Vocal soloists were soprano Katie Van Kooten, contralto Claudia Huckle, tenor Sean Panikkar, and baritone Joshua Hopkins.

I suspect the ordering of resources in the preceding paragraph may raise some eyebrows. However, I feel it is important to emphasize that, first and foremost, Messiah, is a choral composition. Handel is at the top of his contrapuntal game in his skill for managing the four parts of the chorus, alternating weaving the lines into rich textures with imitative call-and-response rhetoric and punctuated at well-chosen moments by abrupt conjunctions into homophony. The instrumental parts are there to enhance and highlight, and Bohlin sized both vocal and instrumental resources to allow all of Handel’s contrapuntal intricacies to surface with crystal clarity. He achieved this effect through well-paced tempo selections and nuanced control of dynamics that always added to the clarity.

The overall result was that, however familiar the music was to most of the people in the audience, the SFS Chorus was in top form with an interpretation that could not have been fresher. Unfortunately, the soloists never quite rose to the same heights. Each of them seemed to approach their work with at least a moderately-informed sense of eighteenth-century embellishment techniques; but those subtleties tended to be overshadowed by a general rhetorical approach of nineteenth-century opera at its grandest. It also felt as if, in spite of the delicacy of all the other reduced resources, each vocalist was insecure about filling all of Davies with her/his voice. That insecurity was then magnified by occasional lapses into overemphatic diction, contrasting sharply (and uncomfortably) with the verbal control of the choral forces.

Could it be that Handel’s score could be performed only by the chorus, assigning the airs to small groups and saving only the recitatives for solo work?

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