REVIEW: Knoxville Choral Society, J.S. Bach and Handel’s “Messiah”

Depending on the season, it seems one can find a Messiah tucked into almost every choir loft at some time or another. But really great Messiahs are more elusive and rare.  In Saturday’s concert at the Tennessee Theatre, the Knoxville Choral Society gave us a glimpse of what a great one might sound like.

Their concert paired selections from all three parts of Handel’s Messiah with J.S. Bach’s Cantata #140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Sleepers, Wake). Although I am thankful for any Bach cantata performance, I am generally not a proponent of doing them with really large choral forces.  As in the orchestral requirements, Bach’s own choirs would have been smaller and, hence, more nimble, and able to respond more presentationally. I am even an admirer of the Joshua Rifkin theory of one singer to a part, at least as an alternative approach–but that is another story.  Having said that, director Eric Thorson drew from his large group an amazingly clear choral tone and an impeccable balance between sections, albeit a tiny bit stolid in temperament and tempo. The #4 Choral, “Zion Hears the Watchmen Singing,” was a surprising feast from the tenors and baritones. Obviously, Bach had a virtuoso oboist available for his performance, for he wrote the #6 Duet, for soprano and bass, with a substantial obbligato line for oboe—in this performance, beautifully offered up by the KSO’s Phylis Secrist.

After  intermission, KCS assistant director Bill Brewer took the podium for The Messiah, and presented a performance that was suitably emotional and rich in details. Obvious, too, were those attributes that the Knoxville Choral Society has become known for: a remarkably rich tone that is solidly balanced; and absolutely superb choral diction. Unfortunately though, the major disappointment of the evening was the soloists, chosen from the members of the society.  Most did not rise to the level of solo vocal ability that is necessary, and expected, in a professional performance. In fact, a few soloists displayed pitch and tone problems so severe that audience members around me were wincing.  However,  there were notable exceptions. Maria Rist, a soloist in the Bach, seems to possess the perfect Baroque oratorio voice—clear, vibrato-less, with wonderful diction. In the Messiah, tenor Bill Paczkowski gave beautiful readings of “Behold, and See if There Be Any Sorrow” and “But Thou Didst Not Leave his Soul in Hell.” Following those arias, came “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” expressively and beautifully sung by Gillian Westerman.

All we like sheep, following tradition, rose for the “Hallelujah,” yet almost every one of Handel’s choruses has some degree of seductive appeal. Invariably, I am smitten by “And the Glory of the Lord” as well as the final chorus “Worthy is the Lamb.” I must also mention “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” a bass aria featuring Jonathan Robinson.  The trumpet obbligato of Sarah Chumney did indeed sound, and brilliantly. With precise entrances, confident high notes, and a gorgeous, clear, crystalline brass clarity, it was, in a word, stunning.


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