Arts & Culture

Review: After 15-year absence, Wichita Symphony Orchestra performs ‘Messiah’

The Wichita Symphony
The Wichita Symphony Courtesy photo

The Wichita Symphony Orchestra joyously presented one of the landmark works of the classical music canon to a nearly full house Saturday night: George Frideric Handel's epic oratorio “Messiah.”

At nearly 275 years old, Messiah is often described as the most-performed work in all of classical music, and unlike many other classics it has been continually performed since its premiere. Conductor Daniel Hege was joined by four guest soloists, as well as the Wichita Symphony Orchestra Chorus (directed by Michael Hanawalt) for this grand performance.

Each soloist brought a distinct personality to their individual arias. Tenor Dinya Vania boasted an operatic approach and a penetrating voice, especially in his forcefully dramatic rendition of “Thou Shalt Break Them” and the perennial favorite “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted.” Baritone Timothy LeFebvre brought a steely, understated intensity to “But Who May Abide the Day” and “The Trumpet Shall Sound.”

Mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick shone in the alternately stately and impassioned “He Was Despised,” the centerpiece of Handel’s tragic depiction of Christ’s Passion. Finally, soprano Janet E. Brown projected a range of characterizations in her tastefully ornamented solos, from the swooping narrative of the Annunciation to the beatific “He Shall Feed His Flock” and the majestic “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.”

At about 150 singers, the chorus matched the orchestra in dynamic but could be clearly heard in softer passages or when reduced to individual sections. While not overlooking the rousing “Hallelujah” that concludes Part Two, the passages that most powerfully demonstrated the chorus’ command of technique and depth of feeling were earlier in the section depicting Christ’s Passion: “Surely, He Hath Borne Our Griefs,” “And With His Stripes We Are Healed” (a tricky chromatic fugue which the chorus made sound effortless), and “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray.”

The orchestra and chorus performed a version of “Messiah” that was orchestrated by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart almost 50 years after Handel’s original, which meant the inclusion of flutes, clarinets, horns, and trombones, which were not part of Handel’s orchestra.

In addition to the inclusion of those instruments’ timbres, the result was a warm, full (but more homogeneous) sound with some passages rewritten in Mozart’s style and, overall, a performance with nuanced dynamics closer to classical-era performance practice than Handel’s baroque original.

The balance from where I sat was good, as both Handel and Mozart saved the fullest orchestral effects for purely instrumental passages or moments with full chorus. Despite the heavier instrumentation, the singers and orchestra kept things light and Hege chose brisk tempos for many numbers, emphasizing the toe-tapping dance rhythms in “For Unto Us A Child Is Born” (the only number in which I noticed the chorus struggle briefly to keep up) and “His Yoke Is Easy And His Burden Is Light,” the finale of Part One. Some numbers were omitted to keep the concert a manageable length (a common practice), but the performers delivered a powerfully dramatic rendition of this iconic work.

Guy Vollen is a conductor, horn player and award-winning composer and holds a doctorate in musical composition. He blogs about music at Medleyana.com.

‘Messiah’

What: Featuring Janet E. Brown, soprano; Barbara Rearick, mezzo-soprano; Dinyar Vania, tenor; Timothy LeFebvre, bass; and the Wichita Symphony Orchestra Chorus

Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas

When: 3 p.m. Dec. 6. A concert talk with Hege will begin about an hour before the performance.

Tickets: $19-$57; 316-267-7658, www.wichitasymphony.org

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