WSO’s Messiah heavenly

Hoosli chorus wows with anniversary gala


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The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO) made spirits bright on Saturday night with its annual production of Handel’s Messiah, trumpeting the fact the festive season is here and in full glory.

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This article was published 08/12/2019 (980 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO) made spirits bright on Saturday night with its annual production of Handel’s Messiah, trumpeting the fact the festive season is here and in full glory.

A mixed-generation audience of 1,647 could be in no better hands than those of legendary British conductor and musicologist Jane Glover, who led a balanced quartet of soloists: Winnipeg-based soprano Andrea Lett; Calgary-born mezzo-soprano Andrea Hill; American-Canadian tenor Zach Finkelstein; and Canadian bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus. They were joined by the Canadian Mennonite University Festival Chorus, which was ably prepared by artistic director Janet Brenneman. 

The one-night-only “WSO Special” performance held on Saturday, and notably its 49th edition, also served as a reunion of sorts, with three artists, save Finkelstein, having appeared on this same stage during various Manitoba Opera productions. Hegedus marked his local debut.

Conductor Tadeusz Biernacki rehearses with the Hoosli Ukranian Male Choir and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra before their Friday evening performance at the Centennial Concert Hall. Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Composed in 1741 in (reputedly) a miraculous 24 days, Handel’s epic three-part sacred oratorio — which is 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 were originally intended to be sung at Eastertide. Presently, they are heard around the globe as a cherished Christmas rite in various guises, from local church productions to professionally staged concerts, and even “scratch” Messiahs performed as community singalongs.

Glover — notably a commander of the British Empire and renowned Handel scholar, who has led Chicago’s Music of the Baroque for more than 20 years — enlivened this latest incarnation by showing us the breadth of expression of the composer’s music: from limpid sensitivity and delicately terraced dynamics, to blistering counterpoint and fiery dramatic intensity.

Each of the four soloists brought their own colour to the ensemble. Lett, particularly, shone during her first recitative, There were shepherds abiding in the field, which follows the contemplative instrumental Pifa, before bursting into an effervescent Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. It showcased her sparkling coloratura and graceful embellishment of her vocal lines with artfully executed baroque trills, despite a few minor intonation wobbles at the outset.  

Hegedus riveted with his intensely dramatic presence from his opening recitative, “Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts,” driven by crisp, virtuosic runs, before later plunging listeners into the shuddering depths with “For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth,” and following aria “The People that walked in darkness,” his booming vocals and wide palette of tonal colour infusing the entire, 150-minute production (including intermission) with requisite gravitas.

What a pleasure to see Hill again, with the singer appearing as Rosina in Manitoba Opera’s production of The Barber of Seville last April. Once again, she brought her lustrous vocals and dignified presence (albeit at times understated, and especially in the riptide of Hegedus) to each of her solos, including the opening aria But who may abide the day of His coming.

Part II’s He was despised was sung with utter sincerity, further showcasing her burnished lower range. Another highlight became her flowing duet with Lett, He Shall Feed his Flock like a Shepherd

The Seattle-based Finkelstein immediately displayed his golden tone and poetically lyrical phrasing during his opening, calmly delivered Comfort ye, my People, that did just that, before bursting into Ev’ry Valley shall be Exalted, in which he unleashed his vocal pyrotechnics.

Despite perennially limited rehearsal time en masse, Glover — who conducted the performance without score, providing even greater freedom for cueing musicians — coaxed sound from the choir, including during an electrifying He Trusted in God.

As expected, the faithful throng rose to their feet during the Hallelujah chorus that closes Part II, performed with gusto that inspired even a few listeners to join along in high-spirited harmony.   

The final Amen is always another stirring highlight and this performance did not disappoint, resulting in the crowd once more leaping to their feet with cries of bravo for their heavenly hosts. 

● ● ● 

The Hoosli Ukrainian Male Chorus performed its auspicious 50th anniversary gala concert with the WSO on Friday night.

The 32-member ensemble was led by its Juno award-winning music director, Tadeusz Biernacki, who also orchestrated the entire show with more than 850 pages of score for the WSO players.

The thoughtfully paced show, which was sung entirely in Ukrainian, offered many surprises and was fuelled by plenty of heart and soul. It was equally infused with an often breathtaking, deeply felt cultural pride and artistic integrity.  

Hearing renowned Winnipeg soprano Andriana Chuchman — who continues to traverse the world performing in opera’s typical Italian and German languages — perform in her native tongue of Ukrainian during The Steppe Wind, and Ruler of Heaven and Earth, (translated) became one of those magical moments one does not easily forget. She also performed a heartfelt solo of Dvorak’s Song to the Moon.

Winnipeg master accordionist Myron Kurjewicz threw sparks during his solo Verkhovyno; his infectious joy was palpable.

The night’s greatest lump-in-the-throat moment came as chorus’s longest-serving director (1985-2002), a now elderly William Solomon, took the stage to lead the singers through a medley of hits culled from the past 50 years. The years seemingly fell away by the minute that also spoke to the continuity of generations. 

The Rusalka Ukrainian Dance Ensemble treated the crowd to a gently flowing Spring Dance for the women, while the men drew swords during their own section, which included semi-staged excerpts from Mykola Lysenko’s opera Taras Bulba.

Those hoping to see the group’s trademark athleticism received a more scaled-down display — with the ensemble’s two guest appearances ostensibly more a grace note than punctuation mark to the night’s proceedings.   

Still, 1,825 audience members, comprised mostly of Hoosli Ukrainian Male Chorus family and friends, didn’t seem to mind. They gave the performers an enthusiastic standing ovation. The chorus now proudly embarks on its next 50 years of spirit and song.


Updated on Sunday, December 8, 2019 7:55 PM CST: Edited

Updated on Monday, December 9, 2019 7:35 AM CST: Corrects references to Hegedus's solos

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