Conductor David Thye of the music faculty of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary revealed visionary insight into Handel’s Messiah Monday night at Bass Performance Hall in the traditional annual presentation of the venerable oratorio by the Fort Worth Symphony.
Philosphically, one could question the annual presentation of the same work, year after year, to the point that it becomes more of an icon that a work of art. Likewise, one could question the necessity of trimming the piece into a version that is basically most of Part I with highlights from Part II and Part III.
Still, if any work deserves (and can withstand) habitual repetition, it is Messiah. The deeply ruminative arias, the succinct and grand choral utterances, and the lean, energetic counterpoint continue to engage twenty-first century audiences as surely as those same elements thrilled the rising merchant class and intellectually involved aristocracy of eighteenth-century Britain and Ireland. It is no coincidence that it was in the culture surrounding the creation of Messiah that the concept that a work of music could contain durability, and could be meaningful a year or a decade or a century after its first performance, first emerged.
Though an uncut performance would be ideal and, in the right circumstances more interesting than the truncated version presented annually by the Fort Worth Symphony, logistical demands and the short, distracted attention span of the modern audience, many of whom have to be at work by 9 the next day, demand a version trimmed down to two hours.
Those minor points aside, conductor Thye’s mastery of this epic score became increasingly evident as the evening proceeded. The Fort Worth Symphony was slightly reduced to late eighteenth-century proportions. Thye introduced a further element of contrast and subtle shift of color and weight by reducing the strings even further—essentially by half—for most of the solo arias, then calling on the full ensemble to accompany the 120-voice Southwestern Seminary Master Chorale. Through this approach, the marvelous triptych of choruses at the opening of Part II, one of the most sublime moments in the entire choral-orchestral repertoire, took on an unusually rich texture, beautifully carrying the somber text. The string section played with impressive, razor-sharp precision and clarity throughout the evening. The little fugato for violins in the final chorus was breathtaking, particularly next to the wide-open grandeur of the chorus at that point.
The soloists, all locally based, could easily hold their own on any concert stage in the world. Tenor John Cornish showed off a fine sense of serenity and vocal virtuosity in the opening aria. Soprano Anne Beloncik brought a brilliant lightness to her role. Contralto Angela Faith Cofer, as always, combined her emotional command of the literary aspects of the text with a genius for pacing within Handel’s demanding alto arias. But it was baritone J. David Robinson who made the greatest impression in this performance, producing several high points, beginning with a display of miraculous lung power in his first aria, and in the powerful crescendo in the final phrase of his second aria, “But Who May Abide?”
Thye’s understanding of the score was brought home again in the “Hallelujah Chorus,” as he underlined, at once subtly and brilliantly, the shift of volume and timbre between the phrase “The kingdom of this world,” emphasizing the dark, reticent aspect of the music at the point, and the subsequent “Is become the kingdom of our Lord,” in which he drew out the complete brilliance of Handel’s orchestration and choral writing at that moment. In a memorable and highly effective musical strategy, Thye called on the larger orchestral ensemble to accompany the penultimate, and, in this performance, climatic moment, the baritone aria “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” Here, soloist Robinson pulled out his full expressive range in collaboration with a handsomely shaped reading of the trumpet obbligato by Steve Weger to crown—and justify—this year’s version of a Fort Worth musical tradition.
Photo: David Thye (Courtesy of Southwest Theological Baptist Seminary).