Solo vocalists shine at performance of Handel’s Messiah

By Tim Gaylard Special to The Roanoke Times

George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” was presented Tuesday night featuring the Roanoke Symphony Baroque Orchestra and the Roanoke Symphony Chorus under the baton of David Stewart Wiley. The performance took place in the Shaftman Performance Hall at Jefferson Center before an audience of almost 700. Vocal soloists included soprano Adelaide Trombetta, alto Leah Melfi, tenor Brian Thorsett and bass Branch Fields.

The group performed only Part 1 of the oratorio, replacing the final chorus of that part with the more familiar and festive Hallelujah Chorus from the end of Part 2.

Wiley conducted a thoughtful and well-shaped performance, eliciting climactic moments during some of the more enlivening choruses. He also created sensitive and supportive accompaniments for his fine vocal soloists.

He was ably assisted by his orchestra which, in this case, was more like a finely honed chamber group, with only one player per part. Heading the group was concertmaster Akemi Takayama, who expertly applied her singing violin to the various ritornelli. Taylor Baldwin on keyboard, Kelley Mikkelsen on cello and T. Alan Stewart on double bass provided a crisp and secure continuo throughout the evening.

Highlights of the performance came with the various solo vocal recitatives and arias. After a finely contrasted orchestral overture, tenor Thorsett sang his opening “Comfort ye” with a riveting dramatic rendition. This was followed by an equally exciting “Ev’ry valley” that showcased his honeyed sound, wonderful breath control and admirable flexibility.

Fields had two recitatives and arias with which to reveal his sensitivity to the texts, a resonant, yet agile, voice, an impressive range and impeccable intonation.

Melfi displayed a full-throated alto with plummy low notes in her two recitatives and arias.

Perhaps the finest of them all was Trombetta, whose clear but warm soprano blossomed as she went into her high register. She easily dispatched the tricky runs in the aria “Rejoice greatly” and provided a ringing high C at the end of her cadenza. Earlier in the evening, she declaimed the set of recitatives describing the host of angels with an almost operatic approach, looking upward to suggest their arrival.

John Hugo, who had prepared his chorus well for their various musical numbers, sang in the tenor section with them during the performance. In general, the chorus sang with energy and enthusiasm. Only occasionally did the soprano section sound taxed by the coloratura and high tessitura of “And He shall purify” and “For unto us a child is born.”

Everyone on stage came together for the exhilarating final “Hallelujah,” for which the audience stood and then cheered loudly in appreciation. It was an apt and joyous way to start the upcoming holiday season.

Tim Gaylard is a professor of music at Washington and Lee University.