Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Handel’s Messiah Concert

Friday, December 8, 2017


IN his introduction to the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra (TBSO) and Chorus’s performance of Handel’s Messiah, conductor Simon Rivard said that he had sang in his first Messiah when he was fourteen years old. The conductor of that Messiah was performing his 65th Messiah. Rivard then revealed this would be his first as conductor.

This brief history tells us how how well known is Handel’s oratorio. You know it. You’ve heard it even if you have never experienced it live, in concert. It is seasonally played on radios, on television and as background music in shopping malls and some quality hotel elevators. Its signature chorus is a show stopping tune that you can recognize merely from the orchestral introduction.

From tenor Patrick McGill’s opening notes of the recitativo Comfort Me, I knew we were going to be in for something wonderful. McGill’s clear, round intonation soared out into the church auditorium, filling it and us with glorious sound. Immediately he set the musical bar very high for the evening.

All of the four featured soloists were so fine. Soprano Jana Miller can set a single phrase alight and make it glow. She did this most nobily with But thou didst not leave. Baritone Stephen Hegedus gave us a smooth and forceful performance with his solid full range, but in particular his confident lower register. And what a rare and beautiful experience it was to hear counter-tenor Nicholas Burns. His pure vocal tones evoked all the baroque splendor of Handel’s composition.

The TBSO Chorus matched this high standard. Rivard helped shape their vocal contributions, as well as conducting the orchestra. The Chorus sounded particularly alive in this church auditorium, singing with focused, sharp, clear tonality and diction. The orchestra performed flawlessly, with special mention being given to principal trumpet David Koch’s contributions.

Through-out all of the concert, Rivard conducted with the skill and well-paced precision of a seasoned master. His guidance of the entire ensemble was marvelous to experience.

The principal challenge of the Messiah is there is so much of it. Too much - a full length performance would last nearly three hours. Rivard skillfully selected sections that showcased all three main contributors, the orchestra, the chorus and the featured soloists, bringing the program to a manageable two hours. But I have a quibble. The work is most frequently performed in conjunction with two Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter. An odd absence from this program was Onto Us A Child Is Born. Aside from this, the overall evening was splendid.

The concert was repeated on Saturday night.

Michael Sobota reviews the symphony orchestra for The Chronicle-Journal.

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