Last week, in the hands of conductor and artistic director Stephen Stubbs, Pacific MusicWorks performed Handel‘s Messiah as close to the way Handel and his forces originally performed it over 270 years ago as modern scholarship could achieve.
Composed over just 24 days, the Messiah was first performed in 1742 at the Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin, and 700 people crammed themselves into the modest venue to hear it. Last week, twice in area churches and Saturday and Sunday in Meany Theater, Stubbs presided over 19 instrumentalists and 45 members of The University of Washington Chamber Singers (trained by Geoffrey Boers) plus four soloists, who sat beside the chorus and often sang with them. In Handel’s day, soloists were frequently the lead members of each choir section, but for a couple of hundred years now, soloists for Messiah have been brought in and seated separately.
Stubbs has said recently how much he appreciates being able to work with these student singers over time, as opposed to having just a couple of rehearsals right before a performance, as is usual with most professional performances today. It showed in the nuances he brought out in the various choruses. I have never before heard the scorn and sarcasm spat out here by the singers in “He trusted in God that he would deliver him…” and yet that feeling is right there in the words.
Instead of using the entire orchestra all the time, Stubbs often used the concerto grosso approach, that is, a small group of solo instruments alternating with the whole. Thus a good deal of the solo work was accompanied by only a string quartet with harpsichord and organ, and this gave a chance for the soloists to bring in a range of subtlety not really possible with a big orchestra. It also made it possible for ornamentation, in which all the soloists were immensely skilled, to be shaped and heard in detail. These ornaments are basically embroidery on the plain written notes and used when there is a repeat section.
Often the soloists took over parts of choruses with just the concerto grosso, giving each one even more life, the full orchestra returning with the full chorus.
Countertenor Reginald Mobley has an effortless and beautiful voice with no break from his highest notes to the lowest, plus an innate musicality and control of the music that enabled him to tell the story with meaning, such as the pervasive sadness which imbued, “He was despised and rejected…” Bass-baritone Kevin Deas has an arresting voice of rich tone and depth. In “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,” one could almost feel it happening, while in “The trumpet shall sound,“ Baroque trumpeter Kris Kwapis stood on the opposite side of the orchestra from Deas, and between them the energy of the aria thrilled listeners. Soprano Teresa Wakim encompassed the runs clearly and amazingly fast in “Rejoice greatly,” not rushed but at Handel’s speed, and tenor Zachary Wilder gave an intensely moving “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart….”
The excellent chorus work—every word clear, nothing forced—added to the freshness and consistent interes. The lightness and agility of the baroque instruments of the orchestra—the plangent sound of Baroque oboes, the clarity of the strings, the high bright trumpets, the timpani with small hard mallets creating a short firm sound—gave a less familiar dimension compared to modern instruments. Under the dynamic conducting of Stubbs, the whole became a memorable performance, one not easily forgotten.