HEAVENLY hosts descended upon the Centennial Concert Hall stage Friday night as the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra presented Handel's glorious oratorio Messiah.
The pair of weekend Masterworks concerts led by Alexander Mickelthwate showcased the University of Manitoba Singers (Elroy Friesen, director) as well as four soloists: Lara Ciekiewicz (soprano), Eric Jurenas (countertenor), Won Whi Choi (tenor), and Philippe Sly (bass-baritone) with the latter three also notably marking their WSO debut. The program was dedicated to late classical music critic/columnist Gwenda Nemerofsky who died almost two weeks ago.
Handel's epic work scarcely needs introduction. Composed in 1741 in (reputedly) a miraculous 24 days, the three-part work based on Charles Jennen's libretto presents a musical commentary on Jesus Christ's nativity, passion, resurrection and ascension.
Its famous recitatives, arias and choruses have become as integral to yuletide festivities as an egg in nog. Countless versions are being performed worldwide right now, in various guises ranging from professional stagings to "scratch" Messiahs performed as community singalongs. It is always fascinating to discover what flavour each ensemble will bring to "its" Messiah, and anticipate new voices that have not previously been heard.
In this case, the audience was treated to a lighter, more intimate version, with Mickelthwate setting brisk tempi throughout. This actually proved a good thing, as the lengthy program clocks in at nearly 150 minutes (including intermission).
South Korean-born tenor Won Whi Choi asserted his booming presence immediately with his opening recitative Comfort ye my people followed by aria Ev'ry valley shall be exalted. Demonstrating a remarkable vocal strength for his relatively slight frame, the singer responded ably to the composer's many virtuosic runs while also displaying an equally impressive dynamic range.
A real treat was hearing Jurenas perform the solo sections more typically performed by contraltos -- as they were during last year's WSO concert. This American dynamo performed without showing any hint of strain, his unworldly voice easily soaring through his opening aria But who may abide the day of his coming as well as recitatives including Behold, a virgin shall conceive.
Winnipeg's own singing angel, Ciekiewicz is always a joy to hear. Her clear soprano just seems to get better all the time, with her first recitative There were shepherds abiding in the field following the contemplative instrumental Pifa well worth the wait. Her famous aria Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion also showcased her spot on intonation and effervescent coloratura.
At the other end of the vocal spectrum was Sly, who asserted his dramatic presence immediately in Thus saith the Lord. At times, his more introspective delivery -- especially during his quieter, pianissimo moments -- buried his own words.
The youthful chorus, impeccably prepared by Friesen, performed each one of their choruses - including the mighty Hallelujah that ends Part II with rhythmic vitality and seasonal joy.