RSO's ‘Messiah’ a feast of detail and grandeur

by Seth Williamson

The following review appears in the December 7, 2009 edition of The Roanoke Times

When they arrived for Sunday’s performance of “Messiah” by the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Shaftman Performance Hall concertgoers may have wondered why most of the orchestra was late.

As the downbeat neared, it became obvious that music director and conductor David Stewart Wiley had decided to go with a much smaller complement of players than is heard in most professional performances of Handel’s great oratorio. Onstage before a nearly sold-out house was a string quintet, plus two flutes, two trumpets, a bassoon, a harpsichord and a timpani.  Could such a small chamber ensemble match the voices of the 70-odd symphony chorus members, which included members of the Liberty University Chamber   Singers?

They did better than I thought they could. In fact, even though this performance of Parts I and III was not authentically scaled to pass muster from early-performance experts, it rose at moments to unmistakable grandeur.  It didn’t hurt to have a full set of good vocal soloists. Soprano Adelaide Muir Trombetta, alto Tara Bouknight, tenor John Hugo (who is the RSO’s chorus master) and bass Wayne Kompelien (who directs the Liberty University Chamber Singers) were evenly matched and sang beautifully together.

Trombetta and Bouknight were better than good. Trombetta, who was stunning in a red gown, had a sweet purity of tone and a cleanness and accuracy to her vocal ornamentation that was a delight to hear. Bouknight, who lives in Franklin County, did a richly detailed and gorgeous job every time she opened her mouth, especially with the lovely “He Shall Feed His Flock.”   Hugo and Kompelien were not as distinctive but turned in satisfactory performances.

The big star in any performance of “Messiah” is and should be the chorus. The RSO’s chorus and Kompelien’s Liberty University singers did not disappoint.  They displayed a light touch with contrapuntal sections such as “For Unto Us a Child is Born.” Even better, their choral diction was close to perfect and easily understandable to the back of the hall. Hugo and Kompelien deserve congratulations for training such a fine group of singers.

Wiley’s tempos for the choruses were mostly lively. His light touch with the choruses made it easier to believe there was a full orchestra out front.  In fact, the final “Amen” of the final chorus “Worthy is the Lamb” was among the most noble and gravely beautiful performances in recent memory from these players and singers.

After that dramatic fi nale, the Shaftman Hall crowd responded with shouts of bravo and a standing ovation.

Seth Williamson produces “Morning Classics” and “Back Roads & Blue Highways” on public radio station WVTF (89.1 FM) in Roanoke.