Not Your Ordinary Handel’s Messiah
– by Lee Greene
On Thursday, December 3, 2015, I attended, at the Grants Pass Performing Arts Center, the first of three performances this holiday season of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah by the combined talents of the Rogue Valley Symphony and the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers. Their already superlative musicians and vocalists were supplemented for this series of concerts by a quartet of notable vocal soloists: Tenor Zach Finkelstein, Mezzo-Soprano Sarah Mattox, Soprano Lindsay Ohse and Baritone Jose Rubio. Surely everyone has heard a performance of Handel’s Messiah, most of us likely have heard countless performances of the work. Handel’s Messiah is “one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.” [Wikipedia, Messiah (Handel), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messiah_%28Handel%29] Every church choir, most school choirs, many community choirs, a lot of community orchestras, etc. feel obligated to perform the piece sometime – every holiday season there seem to be at least one, if not more, groups offering up a performance or two or three of Handel’s Messiah. The work is, of course, “’a commentary on [Jesus Christ’s] Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension’, beginning with God’s promises as spoken by the prophets and ending with Christ’s glorification in heaven” [Id.], which is why it has become a Christmas season staple.
It is a great piece of music, so absent some major gaffe even a mediocre company can offer up an enjoyable performance of the work. (“Handel wrote Messiah for modest vocal and instrumental forces . . . .” [Id.]) But this performance was NOT your ordinary or routine presentation of the great work. I have previously written extensively in these pages about the exceptional talents of Rogue Valley Symphony music Director Martin Majkut and his remarkable accomplishments in raising the quality of the Symphony’s musicians and performances to a level where they are the equal of, if not surpass, that of many of the fine symphony orchestras in major American or European metropolitan centers. [See, e.g., list of articles at http://performingarts.reviews/?s=rogue+valley+symphony] This concert continued that unabated level of success, with the only difference being that for Handel’s Messiah, Dr. Majkut was working with a more modest sized orchestra (of 26 musicians) than in many of the other concerts. In effect, the Maestro was able to wean the symphony personnel for this concert to the very best of his musicians. Most of the exceptional principal musicians for the various orchestra sections, who have contributed their talents towards making this orchestra so remarkably outstanding, were present and in top form for this concert under Dr. Majkut’s baton, including Concertmaster Scott Cole, Associate Concertmaster Mahjinka Stebbins, Second Violinist Lauren Trolley, Violist Pat Berlet, Cellist Michal Palzewicz, Bassist David Miller, Oboists Irene Fitch and Kristin Kessler, Bassoonist Karen Basin, Trumpeters Bruce Dresser and Dan Kocurek, Timpanist Theresa McCoy and Harpsichordist Jodi French. It was a gathering of the best of the best, and the resulting music from the symphony reflected that superior level of musicianship and Dr. Majkut’s unrivaled leadership.
As an example of the fine musicianship by the symphony orchestra contributed to this concert, I offer this excerpt video clip recorded at the concert, of the Symphony alone performing the short Pifa (Pastoral Symphony) section of Part I of the Messiah:
Maestro Martin Majkut leads the Rogue Valley Symphony through the “Pifa” section of Handel’s Messiah during a performance at Grants Pass Performing Arts Center in Grants Pass, OR on December 3, 2015.
But that was only one contribution of a much bigger collaboration making this concert extraordinary. For this was NOT the symphony performing alone; they were joined for this concert by equal collaborators, the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers. I have also written extensively in the past about the singular and outstanding talents and accomplishments of Southern Oregon Repertory Singers Music Director Dr. Paul French, and his successful accomplishments in assembling an exceptional ensemble of vocalists and leading them to produce consistently outstanding and notable performances of the most beautiful and challenging vocal music from around the world. [See, e.g., list of articles at http://performingarts.reviews/?s=Southern+Oregon+Repertory+Singers]
As with Dr. Majkut and his Symphony, Dr. French was working with a smaller subset of his exceptional choir for Handel’s Messiah concert, so the chorus was weaned to the best of the best too. But again, all of the gifted personnel, who have contributed their talents towards making this choral ensemble so remarkably outstanding, were present and in top form for this concert, fully prepared by Dr. French to produce extraordinary music, including angelic sopranos Jennifer Matsuura, Lindsay Panero and Christine Eggert, notable altos Shelly Cox and Muriel Sadleir Hart, accomplished tenors Chris Bingham and Chris Phillips, and outstanding basses Don Matthews, Michael Wing, Ken Depp, Nick Tennant and Brian Tingle, to name a few (and I mean no disrespect to the other Repertory Singers or orchestra musicians who participated – every singer and instrumentalist who took the stage for this concert was well prepared and performed superbly; I just can’t list them ALL).
Well you can only imagine what the combined talents of those two extraordinary musical organizations are capable of when working together under the combined leadership of Drs. Majkut and French. But wait! That was not all! For this concert, they reached out and drew in four exceptional vocal soloists, to sing Handel’s beautiful Messiah arias and recitatives. Leading the pack was Soprano Lindsay Ohse, “with a voice described as ‘dazzling and crystal clear’” [and it certainly was ALL THAT for this concert], who has been distinguishing herself in both the worlds of opera and concert repertoire. She is the winner of the 2012 Metropolitan Opera National Council District Auditions and the recipient of Santa Fe Opera’s Agnes M. Canning Award for outstanding apprentice artist singer. Not surprisingly, she sang like it for this Handel’s Messiah concert.
Also distinguishing himself for this concert was Baritone Jose Rubio, who has been making his mark as a significant and internationally acclaimed vocalist. Mr. Rubio recently made a successful Carnegie Hall debut, has performed at major venues around the country and the world, but is familiar to local audiences, having among other things, won the very competitive operatic vocal competition sponsored by Medford’s Brava Opera Theater.
They were joined by Tenor Zach Finkelstein and Mezzo-Soprano Sarah Mattox. Mr. Finkelstein has become a leading tenor soloist in North America, from Seattle’s Benaroya Hall to New York’s Lincoln Center, and abroad, from London’s Sadler Wells to Beijing’s National Arts Center.
Ms. Mattox who made her Carnegie Hall debut singing for Maestro and acclaimed choral composer John Rutter in 2007, and has thrice returned to perform there, has also conquered the venues of the American Northwest, singing with the Seattle Symphony, the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, the Sunriver Music Festival, the Northwest Chamber Chorus, the Eugene Concert Choir, the Northwest Sinfonietta, and the Cascade Festival of Music, among others.
All together, it was quite a distinguished group of soloists, and they did not disappoint. With the combined exceptional musicianship of the Rogue Valley Symphony and the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers, the full ensemble was extraordinary, and they produced a resulting outstanding and memorable performance of Handel’s Messiah.
I will offer another video recording excerpt, that captures some of the unabashed excitement, energy and musicianship of the entire ensemble; the concluding finale section, the Hallelujah Chorus. Pay attention to the superb soprano and baritone vocal contributions, as well as the wonderful instrumental performances by timpani, trumpet, and the beautifully in tune and well integrated strings, in this recording. Please accept my apologies for the jiggle early in the visual aspect of this recording; it has been a tradition since 1756 for the audience to stand during performances of the Hallelujah Chorus [Wikipedia, Messiah (Handel), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messiah_%28Handel%29] and this audience was no different. So, in order to record over the heads and torsos of those in front of me, I had to rise from my seat too, while recording.
Maestro Martin Majkut leads the Rogue Valley Symphony, Southern Oregon Repertory Singers and soloists Tenor Zach Finkelstein, Mezzo-Soprano Sarah Mattox, Soprano Lindsay Ohse & Baritone
Jose Rubio through the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s “Messiah” during a performance at Grants Pass Performing Arts Center in Grants Pass, OR on December 3, 2015.
I also want to apologize because the couple of excerpts presented with this review fail to capture the best parts of the performances of this Handel’s Messiah. It’s not that the clips aren’t good – they ARE. But they simply do not present the best parts of the concert performances. In hindsight (isn’t hindsight wonderful? But not of much practical assistance, after the event), after having seen the entire concert, I wish I had recorded some of the chorus sections, for they were outstanding, truly incomparable. I take copious notes during a concert (at least I do when I’m not busy video recording!) and looking back over my notes, I wish I had recorded some of the extraordinary choral performances I wrote about: And the Glory – “Glorious! Inspiring rendition. Crisp, clear and very musical!”; And he shall purify – “very lively back and forth between women’s choir and men’s on opposite sides of the stage”; For unto us a child is born – “REALLY well done! Lovely back and forth between men and women. But sopranos rule!”; Glory to God – “Glorious Indeed!”; His Yoke is easy – “Just beautifully sung! All in tune and spot-on timing, and completely in sync with orchestra.” Oh well, guess you’ll just have to go hear and see it for yourself to appreciate how well done the choral parts were.
Then there were the vocal solos. It’s a standing rule I have from the Rogue Valley Symphony that soloists’ performances are NOT to be recorded. It otherwise creates too many problems with artists’ representatives and agents, hypersensitive and protective artists, copyright enforcers, etc. So there are no clips of any of the soloists performing. Too bad. For as good as the Rogue Valley Symphony and the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers contributions were to this performance of Handel’s Messiah, the highlights of this concert were really the performances of those fine vocal soloists. Try as I might to describe them for you in words, nothing I say here can truly do justice to what those four offered on the stage at that concert. Ms. Ohse was a revelation. Her singing was above and beyond what anyone had reason to expect in a performance of Handel’s Messiah in a high school auditorium in Grants Pass, Oregon. It was unquestionably worthy of a brava performance at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, etc. She projected her beautiful, clear, gorgeous voice so it was well heard throughout the large hall. Her striking singing was matched only by her stunning appearance in an elegant ecru gown. And as she sang, she continuously, consistently presented a million-watt smile.
If Ms. Ohse’s contribution had been the only highlight of this concert, then that alone would have been worth the price of admission. But, of course it wasn’t. Equally notable and worthy of kudos was the vocal contributions of Baritone Jose Rubio. From his first moments singing in this concert, on the aria early in the work, Thus saith the Lord, he produced an “exhilarating Baritone voice, well enunciated lyrics sung very musically”. One of the absolute highlights of this concert was Mr. Rubio’s performance of the penultimate section of the work, The trumpet shall sound. It was “truly memorable, great, beautiful, terrific and peerless baritone singing”, aptly matched during the piece with equally “great trumpet contributions” from the orchestra.
Ms. Mattox’s Mezzo-Soprano contribution was striking. Not only was her voice up to the task, but I noted at several points during her performances that she provided “a 110% effort.” What in the world does THAT mean? Well, I’ll tell you. Her singing was wonderful, as was that of all the other soloists. But where Ms. Ohse presented a constant smile during her performances, and Messrs. Finkelstein and Rubio remained relatively straight-faced throughout theirs, Ms. Mattox dramatically emoted. She presented a full palate of facial expressions to match the emotions of the lyrics she was singing, and it was transfixing!
Mr. Finkelstein was no slouch on the tenor parts. Again, from his first contribution in the concert, the aria, Comfort ye, his performances provided a “rich tenor voice” which he “projects well”. The duet between Mr. Finkelstein and Ms. Mattox, near the end of the work, O death, where is thy sting, was quite beautiful and the two singers were well matched and perfectly balanced and in collaboration with each other.
I don’t know about you, but I have heard countless performances of Handel’s Messiah over the years (and even sung in a few of them!). But NONE OF THEM compared to this one. Once again, Dr. Majkut and Dr. French have applied their talents to produce a superlative musical performance surpassing even many earlier outstanding efforts by their respective exceptional musical organizations. (And I have a suspicion they were aided by the efforts of hard working Rogue Valley Symphony Executive Director Jane Kenworthy, in securing the roster of extraordinary soloists, who really made this an unforgettable, incomparable and memorable concert.) If you haven’t figure it out already for yourself, having read this far, this is a “must see” concert, if you can get to a performance. The program will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Friday, Dec. 4 at the S.O.U. Music Recital Hall in Ashland, and again at 7:30 pm on Saturday, Dec. 5 at the Craterian Theater in Medford. Tickets can be obtained by calling 541-552-6398 or online at http://bit.ly/1CuvEY5.