For classical music fans, the holidays are usually not the best time of year. It’s when serious music gets put on a shelf and venues and ensembles are given over to seasonal favorites and other light fare. So it was a treat to hear consecutive concerts that offered bright holiday packages without sacrificing a note of substance or quality.
Apollo’s Fire set a high-water mark for the season with its performance of Handel’s Messiah, which this critic took in at First Baptist Church in Shaker Heights on Friday night. The space certainly helped. Smaller venues where the ensemble performs, like Fairmount Presbyterian Church down the street, take some of the luster and definition out of the sound. Churches like First Baptist or Trinity Cathedral give it a chance to breathe and soar, as sacred music was intended to do.
Conducting from the harpsichord for much of the evening, Jeannette Sorrell drew a spirited performance from the ensemble, which played with precision and flair. Even when the full chorus joined in fortissimo, she maintained a buoyant quality in the sound, with airy vocals grounded by a taut, well-balanced bottom in the orchestra. It was a masterful bit of musicianship that took on added resonance in the second half, when the players reached deep into the emotional currents of the score.
The soloists were a somber group, especially the two men – tenor Karim Sulayman and baritone Jeffrey Strauss, who strode to the front of the stage with fire in their eyes and a demeanor that approached anger at times. That gave their vocals power, though added some perplexing dark tones to what is predominantly a joyous piece. Mezzo Amanda Crider has a lovely, agile voice that did not carry very far, notable mostly for her finely crafted expression. Soprano Meredith Hall sings with an emotional appeal that goes straight to the heart, occasionally lacking in technical finesse but otherwise rich and colorful, particularly in the higher registers.
On its own, the chorus could sound thin at times. And there were moments, like the Pifa in the first half, when the musicians seemed to be napping. But overall it was a commanding performance, beautiful in its period detail and captivating in its combination of skill and verve. For this critic, the performance also brought two firsts: hearing the Messiah performed in English, and the audience standing for the “Hallelujah” chorus. Purists might object to the former, but both added a sense of community to what is, after all, a shared religious experience.
The setting for CityMusic Cleveland’s Saturday night concert was equally inspiring – the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus in Slavic Village, where a heavenly hierarachy of statuary looks down from a towering main altar, multiple side altars and every corner and column throughout the nave and aisles. A packed house turned out to hear visiting German conductor (and cardiologist) Stefan Willich lead the young chamber orchestra in a program of Mozart and Mendelssohn, with Rebecca Schweigert Mayhew soloing on Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C major (K. 314).
Willich gave the music a satisfying European gloss, starting with a brisk rendition of the overture to The Marriage of Figaro. His phrasing and approach were exactly right, and the caliber of playing was quite good, especially given the ad hoc nature of the ensemble. The strength of the orchestra is its string section, which sounded crisp and graceful the entire evening. The other sections of the ensemble often seemed out of balance, with the horns bordering on muddy at times – though to be fair, hearing the concert from an obscured seat in the west transept didn’t help.
|A modest soloist.|
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 was uneven, zesty at times with the Italian folk rhythms that Willich pointed out beforehand, but plodding in other passages. Again, given the nature of the ensemble, it would be churlish to nitpick the performance, which had a fine professional sheen under Willich’s baton. And the lapses certainly didn’t bother the audience, which also responded enthusiastically to a closing set of rather saccharine spirituals and holiday songs performed by the Mt. Zion Choir.
Both holiday concerts included appeals from the stage for donations, a necessity particularly in CityMusic’s case. Still, one had to wonder if the appeals hadn’t crossed the line when the audience at St. Stanislaus was told to stay in their seats at intermission until ushers had come around with collection baskets, just like at a Sunday service. Ronald and Eugenia Strauss are doing God’s work bringing free classical music to neighborhood churches, and deserve all the support they can get. But shaking down your fans at concerts is more crass than class, unworthy of the great tradition the organization is building and the glorious music that provides the impetus for it all.
For more on Apollo’s Fire: www.apollosfire.org
For more on CityMusic Cleveland: www.citymusiccleveland.org
Sorrell photo: Chautauquan Herald